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Most cases of constipation are not caused by a specific condition and it may be difficult to identify the exact cause. However, several factors can increase your chances of having constipation, including:
- not eating enough fibre, such as fruit, vegetables and cereals,
- a change in your routine or lifestyle, such as a change in your eating habits,
- having limited privacy when using the toilet,
- ignoring the urge to pass stools,
- immobility or lack of exercise,
- not drinking enough fluids,
- being under- or overweight,
- anxiety or depression, or
- psychiatric problems, brought on by sexual abuse, violence or trauma, for example.
Sometimes, constipation may be a side effect of a medicine that you are taking. Common types of medication that can cause constipation include:
- aluminium antacids (medicine to treat indigestion),
- antiepileptics (medicine to treat epilepsy)
- antipsychotics (medicine to treat schizophrenia and other mental health conditions),
- calcium supplements,
- diuretics (water tablets), and
- iron supplements.
If your constipation is being caused by medication, the condition usually eases once you stop taking the medicine. However, under no circumstances should you stop taking your medication unless your GP advises you to.
Speak to your GP if you are experiencing constipation due to a medicine, because they may be able to prescribe an alternative.
About 40% of women will experience some form of constipation during their pregnancy. Most pregnant women tend to be affected during the early stages of their pregnancy.
Constipation occurs during pregnancy as a result of hormonal changes in your body. During pregnancy, your body produces more of the female hormone progesterone. This hormone acts as a muscle relaxant.
Your bowel normally moves stools and waste products along to the anus by a process known as peristalsis. This is when the muscles that line the bowel contract and relax, in a rippling, wave-like motion. An increase in progesterone means the bowel muscles find it more difficult to contract, making it harder to move waste products along.
If you are pregnant, there are ways that you can safely treat constipation that will not harm you or your baby. See theÂ Treatment section for more information about this.
Most constipation cases are not caused by a particular medical condition. However, constipation can rarelyÂ indicate an underlying condition such as:
- colon or rectal cancer,
- hypercalcaemia - when there is too much calcium in your bloodstream,
- underactive thyroid,
- muscular dystrophy - a genetic condition that causes muscle wasting,
- multiple sclerosis - a condition that affects your nervous system,
- Parkinson's disease - a brain condition that affects the co-ordination of body movements,
- spinal cord injury,
- anal fissure (a small tear of the skin just inside your anus),
- inflammatory bowel disease - a condition that causes the intestines to become inflamed (irritated and swollen), and
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Babies and children
Constipation in babies and children is quite common, with about one in three British parents reporting constipation at some time in their child's life.Â Poor diet, fear about using the toilet and poor toilet training can all be responsible.
Children who are over-fed are more likely to have constipation, as are those who do not get enough fluids. Babies who have too much milk are also more likely to get constipation. As with adults, it is very important that your child has enough fibre in their diet.
Make sure that you do not make your child feel stressed or pressured about using the toilet. It is also important to let your children try things by themselves (when appropriate). Constantly intervening when they are using the toilet may make them feel anxious.
Some children can feel stressed or anxious about using the toilet. They may have a phobia about using the toilet, or feel that they are unable to use the toilets at school.
This fear or phobia may be the result of your child experiencing pain when passing stools. This can lead to poor bowel habits, where children ignore the urge to pass stools and instead withhold them, for fear of experiencing pain and discomfort. However, this will mean that their condition only worsens.
In rare cases, constipation in babies andÂ children can be a sign of an underlying condition such as:
- Hirschsprung's disease - a condition that affects the bowel, making it difficult to pass stools,
- anorectal malformation - a condition where the baby's anus and rectum do not form properly,
- spinal cord abnormalities - for example, rare conditions such as spina bifida and cerebral palsy, and
- cystic fibrosis - a genetic condition that causes the body to produce thick and stickyÂ mucus, which can lead to constipation.
The information provided on this website (including any NHS Choices medical information) is for use as information or for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical care by a qualified doctor or other qualified healthcare professional. We do not warrant that any information included within this site will meet your health or medical requirements. This Embarrassing Bodies site does not provide any medical or diagnostic services so you should always check with a health professional if you have any concerns about your health.