Constipation is a very common condition that affects your usual pattern of bowel movements. Your bowel movements may occur less often than usual, or they may be difficult and uncomfortable to pass.
People’s bowel habits vary – for example, some people go more than once a day, while others may go every other day. Neither of these is necessarily a problem if there has been no change in your bowel movements and you aren’t having any difficulties. However, if you have constipation, there are two main ways in which you may be affected.
Constipation can happen for many reasons, and is particularly common in pregnant women and elderly people. Constipation can occur at any age and is a common reason for people going to see their GP.
The main symptoms of constipation include:
A healthy lifestyle, such as eating enough fibre and exercising regularly, can help prevent and ease symptoms of constipation. However, if your symptoms persist or if you notice any other changes in your usual pattern of bowel movement, you should seek medical advice. In particular, if there is blood from your back passage (rectum) or in the toilet, or if you experience diarrhoea alternating with constipation, you should arrange to see your GP without delay.
If constipation isn’t treated, it can cause complications, including those listed below.
There are several reasons why you may develop constipation, including:
Constipation can also be a symptom of certain medical conditions, for example:
If you’re worried about what could be causing your constipation, seek advice from your GP.
Your GP will ask you 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 GP may refer you for further tests to rule out other medical conditions. These tests are listed below.
There are several things you can do to help relieve mild symptoms of constipation.
It’s important that you include enough fibre in your diet, not only to treat constipation, but to maintain your general health. Adults should aim to have 18 to 30g of fibre in their diet each day, but most people in the UK don’t eat enough. Fibre is found in all types of plant-based foods, such as fruit and vegetables. The UK Department of Health recommends that everyone eats five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
There are two types of fibre; insoluble and soluble. It’s important to include both types in your diet to get the balance right.
Good sources of insoluble fibre include:
Good sources of soluble fibre include:
Soluble fibre can also reduce cholesterol in your blood and help control your blood sugar levels.
If you don’t currently eat much fibre, it’s important to increase the amount in your diet slowly, otherwise you may get bloating and wind. You should continue with a high-fibre diet even if your symptoms don’t immediately improve as it may take up to four weeks to have an effect.
It’s also important that you increase your fluid intake; you should aim to drink between eight to 10 cups of fluid a day. This is because insoluble fibre absorbs water and increases the bulk of waste matter in your bowel, which helps to move digested food through your bowel more easily. Increasing the amount of exercise you do may help to ease constipation too.
If lifestyle changes don’t help to relieve constipation, your GP may suggest a laxative. You may need to try more than one type to help improve your symptoms. The types of laxative to help relieve constipation are listed below.
Once your bowel movement pattern returns to usual, you may be able to stop taking laxatives and try to maintain a healthy bowel habit by eating a balanced diet with enough fluids and fibre. For children, it’s important to ensure a regular bowel habit for several weeks after a regular pattern of toilet training has been established, and to taper the dose of laxatives very gradually over several months. For more information, see our frequently asked questions.
You can buy laxatives over the counter from a pharmacist without a prescription. However, it’s a good idea to see your GP before trying laxatives because he or she may be able to give you advice on how to relieve your symptoms without needing to use medicines. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
You can reduce your risk of constipation by eating a balanced diet with lots of fibre, drinking enough fluids and taking regular exercise.
Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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