Constipation associated with irritable bowel syndrome
Constipation for many can be a symptom of living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Constipation often brings with it cramp-like abdominal pain which can range from mild to severe. The pains can last a short period of time or can be long-term (chronic), affecting quality of life due to continual discomfort. This type of pain is often relieved by a bowel movement which if you have constipation, as a symptom of IBS, may be easier said than done. Constipation is a condition where you will experience less frequent bowel movements and may have to strain to try to pass a stool which can then be hard and painful, as well as unusually large or small.
Some IBS sufferers may even switch between symptoms of constipation and diarrhoea, particularly if they are treating constipation.
Fibre & fibre supplements
There are several ways in which to treat constipation. Eating more fibre and regularly drinking water may help some sufferers. However, increasing fibre can also lead to other unwanted symptoms such as bloating, flatulence and in some can cause further constipation particularly, if not enough water has been consumed. Most people in the UK only eat around 14g of fibre a day, some way short of the recommended at least 30g of fibre a day. Good sources of fibre include:
- Wholemeal bread and cereals
- Vegetables and beans
- Dried plums
- Prune juice
- Ground flaxseed
Limit coffee, fizzy drinks and alcohol as these can slow the passage of stools (faeces), as can refined foods such as crisps, biscuits and white rice.
If you are struggling with constipation, you may decide to take a laxative to help you empty your bowels. Laxatives are not a long-term solution, but may bring temporary relief. It's worth bearing in mind that for some people laxatives may cause cramping pains. You can purchase a range of laxatives over the counter. The main types of laxatives used in the UK are:
- Bulk-forming laxatives - these work in the same way as dietary fibre–they increase the bulk of your stools by helping your stools retain fluid, encouraging your bowels to push the stools out.
- Osmotic laxatives - these make your stools softer and easier to pass by increasing the amount of water in your bowels.
- Stimulant laxatives - these speed up the movement of your bowels by stimulating the nerves that control the muscles lining your digestive tract.
Laxatives come in many forms including tablets, sachets of powder to mix with water, gel type liquids and suppositories.
Ideally, you should only use laxatives for short periods of time as longer-term use may make your body dependent on them, and your bowel may no longer function normally without them. There is a lack of high-quality evidence about how useful laxatives are to treat constipation and IBS. To be certain of which laxative you should take, speak to your GP or pharmacist for advice.
Antidepressants for IBS
Your doctor may prescribe a low dose of antidepressants for IBS. This does not necessarily mean that you are depressed. Antidepressants can block the brain’s perception of pain in the gut.
There are different types of antidepressants and the one your doctor chooses for you may depend on whether you suffer from constipation-predominant IBS or diarrhoea-predominant IBS.
Some believe that a lack of exercise can lead to constipation and if you lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle then you may be more prone to constipation. The exercise found to be helpful to relieve symptoms of IBS are exercises that increases your heart and breathing rate. The minimum recommended is 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity every week, such as fast walking or cycling. Make sure you talk to your GP or healthcare professional before embarking on any new exercise programme.
Small changes for some people, such as drinking more water, eating more fruit and vegetables, and just making time to have a bowel movement can help. It is important if you suffer with constipation not to ignore the urge to go to the toilet.
IBS is known to affect quality of life and productivity at work. People with bowel movement problems may feel like they can't go out for fear of suddenly needing to use the toilet. Toilet problems can be a real embarrassment for many people particularly if you are out and about. The Bladder & Bowel Foundation charity have a very useful Toilet card. The card clearly states that the holder has a medical condition and needs to use a toilet quickly. Although it does not guarantee access to a toilet, most places will be willing to help. The card is a small, credit sized card, designed to fit easily into a purse, wallet or pocket. Simply show the card when out shopping and socialising and it may help you gain access to a toilet.
If you are in any doubt about how to treat your constipation, you are advised to talk to your GP or healthcare professional.
You may also want to talk with others in the IBS patient discussion forum
Sources used in writing this article are available on request
Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence based articles are accredited by the PIF TICK, the only UK quality mark for trustworthy health information. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.
Information written by the talkhealth team
Last revised: 2 May 2018
Next review: 2 May 2021