Constipation is a common condition that affects people of all ages. It can mean that you’re not passing stools regularly or you’re unable to completely empty your bowel. It’s estimated that around 1 in every 7 adults in the UK has constipation at any one time. The condition affects twice as many women as men and is also more common in older adults and during pregnancy.

The seriousness of constipation varies for each individual. Many people only experience constipation for a short time, but for others, it can be a chronic illness causing significant pain and impacting quality of life.

What are the symptoms?

Constipation can be identified by a difficulty in passing stools or less frequent passing of stools. You will likely notice very quickly if your normal bowel habits have changed such as the frequency or the size and consistency of your stools (such as being lumpy, hard, large, or small).

Often constipation is accompanied with

  • Stomach ache and cramps
  • Feeling bloated
  • Feeling ill
  • A loss of appetite

The cause of constipation can be difficult to specifically identify and it can often be a combination of factors which result in constipation. The most common contributors are:

Eating habits – not eating enough fibre, such as fruit, vegetables and cereals as well as not eating enough.

Drinking habits – not drinking enough fluids can lead to constipation.

Medication – just some of the medication which can contribute to constipation are calcium-channel blockers, antihistamines, some antidepressants, and non-anti-inflammatory drugs

Physical Illnesses – diabetes, an under active thyroid gland as well as bowl diseases such as IBS can contribute to constipation.

Mental Illnesses – people suffering with depression and anxiety can also suffer from constipation.

Lifestyle – changes to routine or lifestyle, lack of exercise as well as ignoring the urge to pass stools can contribute to constipation

How is it diagnosed? 

Constipation is a very common and diagnosis generally doesn’t involve any tests. Instead question about symptoms will be asked, your answers and medical history is then taken into consideration to provide a diagnosis.

Your GP will ask questions about your bowel habits, your diet, level of exercise and recent lifestyle changes. Whilst these questions may seem embarrassing it is important to be honest in order to receive the help that you need.

The NHS lists the different ways doctors define constipation:

  • Opening the bowels less than 3 times a week
  • Needing to strain to open your bowels on more than a quarter of occasions
  • Passing a hard or pellet-like stool on more than a quarter of occasions

If you’re experiencing severe symptoms, your doctor may request further tests, such as blood tests or thyroid tests, to diagnose or rule out other conditions. Other tests you may have include an abdominal X-ray – where X-ray radiation is used to produce images of the inside of your abdomen. As there’s an increased risk of bowel cancer in older adults, your doctor may also request tests to rule out a diagnosis of cancer, including a computerised tomography (CT) scan or colonoscopy.

Available Treatments

Often short term constipation can be treated by making changes to diet and lifestyle such as:

  • Increasing your intake of fibre by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables as well as foods like cereals. Click here to learn more about the importance of a healthy diet. 
  • Adding bulking agents like wheat bran to your diet can help soften stools and make them easier to pass.
  • Drinking more water.
  • Exercising more regularly – often going for a walk can help with bowel movements.
  • Resting your feet on a low stool while going to the toilet, so that your knees are above your hips can help make passing stools easier.
  • If the medication you take could be causing constipation, your GP may be able to prescribe an alternative.

Depending on the length of time you have had constipation and the severity of it your GP may recommend taking a laxative in order to pass stools. This can be both a short term fix and a longer term aid.