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Constipation affects people of all ages.

Constipation affects people of all ages.
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3-minute read

Constipation can be annoying and, occasionally, painful. It can usually be easily treated by making simple lifestyle changes. However, in some cases there may be an underlying problem, so see your doctor if your constipation is bad or not getting better.

Does it matter how often I use my bowels?

No. The timing of bowel movements varies quite a lot between different people – from 3 bowel movements per day, to 1 bowel movement every 3 days. So if you’re not having a movement every day, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem.

You are only constipated if you are having trouble with having a bowel movement, or you are not having a bowel movement as often as usual. You might also:

  • pass hard stools
  • pass only small amounts at a time
  • feel blocked, or as though you have not completely emptied your bowels.

If you are constipated, you are likely to feel uncomfortable, so it's wise to find the cause and then do something about it.

What causes constipation?

Constipation is caused by the colon (part of your digestive system) absorbing too much water from your food. This means your stools, which are produced at the end of the digestive process, get dry and hard, making them difficult to pass.

Usually, constipation is caused by:

  • not eating enough fibre
  • not drinking enough water
  • not exercising enough
  • ignoring the urge to pass a stool when you need to
  • being stressed.

You can also get constipation when you:

  • are pregnant
  • are due to get your period
  • use laxatives too much
  • are taking certain medications, such as pain killers or iron tablets
  • have a medical condition such as diabetes or a nerve disease
  • have a problem with your digestive tract, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis or haemorrhoids.

Babies can get constipated when solid foods are introduced, and children might become constipated if they hold back bowel movements.

Constipation is a very common gastrointestinal problem. Almost everyone gets constipated at some time in their life.

Occasionally, constipation can be a sign of an underlying disease, such as bowel cancer. In such cases, there are likely to be other symptoms, such as a recent change in bowel habits, weight loss, anal bleeding or abdominal pain. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

Diagnosis of constipation

Before diagnosing constipation, your doctor will need to talk to you about your symptoms, your lifestyle, medical history and any medications you are taking.

Some people will be asked to have tests, particularly if they have other symptoms, to rule out bowel cancer.

Your doctor might:

  • gently feel your abdominal area
  • examine the anus and rectum (bottom part of the bowel) using a gloved finger
  • look inside the rectum with an instrument called a sigmoidoscope
  • look inside the whole bowel with a flexible telescope (colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy)
  • do an x-ray of the large bowel (barium enema).

Treating and preventing constipation

There are several things you can do at home to prevent constipation and treat it if it does occur. These include:

  • eating more high fibre foods (you may also try adding a fibre supplement to your diet)
  • drinking plenty of water and other fluids
  • exercising regularly
  • going to the toilet when you need to, without delaying.

If these measures don’t work, ask your doctor for advice. They might need to check any medications you take, or prescribe a laxative to get your bowel moving.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2017

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