Constipation is when your bowel motions ('poo' or faeces) are less frequent and you have trouble passing them as they are often hard and dry. You may only be able to pass small amounts at a time or have difficulty passing them. Other signs you may be constipated are pain, cramps or swelling in the abdominal area or perhaps you leave the toilet feeling your bowel is not completely empty.
Constipation usually happens because the colon (part of the digestive system) absorbs too much water from your food. If the food moves through the digestive system too slowly, too much water may be absorbed. The bowel motions at the end of the digestive process are then too dry and hard.
Many things can cause or worsen constipation including:
If you think you have constipation, talk to your doctor who can recommend some ways to help. One way to treat constipation is by taking a type of medicine called a 'laxative'. There are various types of laxatives and they all work differently so it's important to talk to your doctor before taking laxatives. Types of laxatives include:
Severe constipation is the most common cause of faecal incontinence (or bowel leakage), especially in older people. This is because hard bowel motions are difficult to pass and may cause a partial blockage high up the bowel, resulting in watery bowel motions flowing around the constipated stool without warning. This is sometimes mistaken for diarrhoea.
You can use the Bristol Stool Chart to check what your bowel motions should look like.
Constipation can affect bladder control and urinary continence. If you sometimes leak urine or feel that you need to frequently visit the toilet to pass urine, it could be that constipation is involved. An over-full bowel (due to constipation) can press on the bladder, reducing the amount of urine it can hold or making you feel like to need to pass urine urgently.
Constipation can also affect your pelvic floor muscles. Pelvic floor muscle strength is important for both bladder and bowel control. These muscles stretch like a trampoline from the pubic bone at the front to the coccyx (tail-bone) at the back. They can be weakened by straining due to constipation, pregnancy and childbirth, or perhaps heavy lifting. Strong pelvic floor muscles are necessary for bladder and bowel control - to be able to 'hold on'.
We have a number of fact sheets available for download on bladder and bowel health. Visit our Resources Page for a more advanced search or have a look at some of the popular factsheets below.