Assessing constipation

Before you have treatment for constipation, your doctor or nurse will need to find out how bad it is. And what the cause could be.

See your doctor or nurse as soon as possible if you haven't opened your bowels for more than 3 days or feel constipated. The sooner they can treat it, the more comfortable you will be.

Talking about constipation

Some people find it difficult to talk about constipation. You might feel embarrassed or upset about it. Or you might worry about what the cause is. It’s completely natural to feel like this. Remember that your doctors and nurses can suggest ways to treat and relieve constipation. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help.

It might help to write down any problems and give a note to your doctor or nurse to read if you find it difficult to talk to them. It can also help to have a friend or relative go along with you and do the talking.

If your treatment is in an open day unit you can ask to go into a private room to discuss your bowel problems. Your doctors and nurses will understand if you want to speak to them in private. So don’t be afraid to ask.

What your doctor or nurse will do

Before your doctor or nurse can treat your constipation they need to find out how bad it is and what is causing it. It is important to assess all aspects of your constipation so that you get the right treatment. 

Your doctor or nurse might:

  • ask you questions about the constipation
  • examine you
  • arrange some tests and investigations
  • give you laxatives
  • suggest other ways of managing your constipation

Questions your doctor or nurse may ask

Your doctor or nurse might ask the following questions:

  • When did you last open your bowels?
  • What does your poo look like?
  • Is the poo very hard?
  • What are your normal bowel habits?
  • What other symptoms do you have: for example, do you feel sick, or have a swollen tummy?
  • What kind of foods do you eat?
  • How much exercise do you get?
  • How much liquid do you drink each day?
  • What kind of drinks do you have?
  • Do you get constipated soon after you have had your cancer treatment?
  • When did you last have your cancer treatment?
  • Are you taking any other medicines?
  • Have you made any changes to your diet?
  • Are you taking any medicines to help with your constipation?

A family member or close friend could help answer questions if you are feeling too uncomfortable or tired, and you really don't feel able to speak to the doctor or nurse.

Last reviewed: 
08 Aug 2019
  • Constipation - Clinical Knowledge Summary 
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2016

  • Diagnosis, assessment and management of constipation in advanced cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines

    P.J Larkin and others

    Annals of Oncology, 2018. Vol 29, Supplement 4.

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