Constipation: A person is constipated if they have fewer than three bowel movements per week. This is when the food moves through the digestive tract too slowly and the colon absorbs too much water from the faeces. This makes the faeces hard, dry and difficult to push out through the anus and rectum.

The common cause of constipation is not eating enough fibre. Fibre is found in plants such as fruits, vegetables and wholegrain breads and cereals. It is not digested and helps keep stools soft. People who don’t eat enough fibre may also drink too little fluids. This can make it harder to pass a stool because the stool needs to be damp and soft in order to move through the digestive system.

Changes in lifestlye and lack of exercise can also lead to constipation. This is especially true in older people who are less active and have a slower metabolism than younger people. The menopause can also cause constipation because the changes in hormones reduce muscle contractions along the digestive tract and slow down movement of faeces. Pregnancy and childbirth can also cause constipation because the baby in the uterus squishes the intestines.

People who are ill or have chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis and asthma also have an increased risk of constipation. Some medications may also contribute to constipation, especially antacids, iron supplements and antidepressants. Other medical conditions that can lead to constipation include gynaecological disorders, colon cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Often, the first sign of constipation is the feeling that you need to go to the toilet but when you do the stool is dry and hard. Other signs and symptoms of constipation include abdominal pain, bloating, a sensation that the bowel is full and the urge to poo but not being able to poo.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, it is important to talk with your doctor. They will ask you about your bowel habits and about your daily routines and lifestyle. They will also examine you and take a sample of your stool to check for constipation.

If the doctor believes you are suffering from constipation, they will recommend dietary and lifestyle changes and prescribe a laxative or bowel stimulant. Laxatives are medicines that encourage the passage of a stool by increasing its size and bulk, or by softening it. These are available in both over-the-counter and prescription forms. Examples of over-the-counter drugs are lubricants (such as mineral oil) and bulk-forming laxatives such as fiber supplements. The more water you drink while taking these medications, the better they will work.

Prescription laxatives include osmotics (which draw in water to hydrate the stool) and neuromuscular agents that target muscles in the digestive tract to stimulate movement. A procedure called a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy can be used to diagnose constipation and other diseases of the lower digestive tract. The results of these tests will be analysed by the doctor. The doctor can then decide if constipation treatment is needed.