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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Diagnosis

Most people with simple constipation can diagnose and treat themselves. If you have constipation, begin by examining your lifestyle. Review your current diet, your level of daily exercise, and your bowel habits. In particular, do you often ignore the urge to have a bowel movement because it is inconvenient? Then take preventive measures, such as adding fiber to your diet, drinking plenty of fluid, and getting regular exercise. If this does not relieve your problem, contact your doctor.

If you have constipation together with rectal bleeding, abdominal pain or abdominal distention (bloating), contact your doctor immediately. It is best in this case for your doctor to evaluate you, including a physical exam and digital rectal examination.

If your symptoms indicate you might have fecal impaction, your doctor can confirm the diagnosis by examining your abdomen and by checking for a mass of impacted feces during the digital rectal exam. You may need other tests, including blood tests, plain abdominal X-rays, a barium enema or sigmoidoscopy (in which a special instrument is used to view the lower colon).

Constipation can be a symptom of colon cancer. The risk of colon polyps and colon cancer increases with age. People age 50 and older should be sure that they are up-to-date with screening for polyps and cancer (by colonoscopy or another test.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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