- not eating enough fibre
- not drinking enough fluid
- certain medicines, such as antidepressants, calcium or iron supplements or painkillers (eg codeine or morphine)
- being inactive
- fear about using the toilet, for example because you worry people can see or hear you
- stress or depression
- pregnancy, around four in 10 women who are pregnant have constipation
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
- painful conditions of the anus, such as piles, anal fissure or tears following childbirth
- conditions affecting the nervous system, such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis
- spinal cord injury
- rectal or colon cancer
- underactive thyroid
The main symptoms of constipation include:
- straining when trying to have a bowel movement
- feeling as though you haven't fully emptied your bowels
- having faeces that are small, hard and/or lumpy
- having fewer than three bowel movements a week
- pain or discomfort in your abdomen (tummy)
If you have these symptoms or if you notice any other changes in your usual pattern of bowel movement, you should see your doctor.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you - this may include an examination of your rectum. He or she may also ask about your medical history. Your doctor may refer you for further tests to rule out other medical conditions:
- Blood tests.
- Sigmoidoscopy. This procedure involves using a narrow, flexible, tube-like telescope (called a sigmoidoscope) to look inside the rectum and lower part of the bowel.
- Colonoscopy. This procedure involves using a narrow, flexible, tube-like telescopic camera (called a colonoscope) to look inside the large bowel.
- Barium enema X-ray. This test involves placing a fluid containing barium (a substance which shows up on X-rays) into the bowel via the rectum. X-ray images of the abdomen then show the inside of the bowel more clearly.
If constipation isn't treated it can cause complications, including:
- faecal impaction - this is when hard faeces collects in your rectum and you reach a point where you probably won't be able to have a bowel movement without treatment
- overflow incontinence - this is when small amounts of loose faeces leak out around the impacted faeces, without you feeling it
- bleeding from the anus
- psychological problems, especially in children, such as holding in faeces because passing them has been painful in the past
- haemorrhoids (piles)
- wholegrain breakfast cereals
- wholegrain bread
- brown rice
- wheat bran
- Bulk-forming laxatives (ispaghula husk, methylcellulose and sterculia). These are recommended if you can't manage to increase the fibre in your diet. You need to drink at least two litres of fluid intake per day if you take these. They contain a type of fibre and work by increasing the amount of content in your bowel. As this builds up, it stimulates your bowel muscles to move and push the faeces out. It may take a few days for bulk-forming laxatives to work.
- Osmotic laxatives (macrogols or lactulose). These work by increasing the amount of water in your bowel, making faeces softer and easier to pass. These take a few days to work and it's important to drink water if you take these laxatives.
- Stimulant laxatives (senna or bisacodyl). These work by stimulating the muscles in your bowel to contract more often and with increased force. These work more quickly than other types of laxative. If you take them at night you are likely to have a bowel movement in the morning. Stimulant laxatives can cause abdominal pain.
This information was published by Bupa Group's Health Content Team and has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. To the best of their knowledge the information is current and based on reputable sources of medical evidence, however Bupa (Asia) Limited makes no representation or warranty as to the completeness or accuracy of the Content.
The information on this page, and any information on third party websites referred to on this page, is provided as a guide only. It should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical advice, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. Bupa (Asia) Limited is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of, or reliance on, the information.
Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. Last updated August 2017.
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