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Constipation in palliative care

Constipation is a common problem for people with cancer and other long-term diseases.

Constipation means either passing hard or painful bowel motions (poos) or going to the toilet less often than usual to empty your bowels.

It can cause pain and discomfort for many people. If we don't manage it well, it can also cause nausea and vomiting, difficulty passing urine (weeing or peeing), or a bowel blockage. Constipation can also cause anxiety and confusion.

Everyone has different bowel habits, so constipation is an individual thing. Remember, if you're eating less, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll pass bowel motions (poos) less often. If you become uncomfortable or are at all concerned, tell your doctor or nurse straight away, as it's much easier to deal with if we treat it early.

Causes of constipation

Several things can cause constipation. They include:

Self-care for constipation

If you're constipated, there are several things you can do yourself to make it better.

You can find more ideas to help yourself in Dealing with constipation.

Getting help for constipation

Your doctor may be able to prescribe something to help or change your medication if that's causing your constipation.

They may prescribe laxatives. Laxatives are medicines that help you pass bowel motions more easily and regularly. Almost everyone who is taking opioid pain relief such as morphine needs to have laxatives.

You can take laxatives as oral medicines (meaning you swallow them), or sometimes they're given as a suppository (you put them in your bottom).

You can find out more information about laxatives on Medicines for constipation (but note that bulk-forming laxatives usually aren't used in palliative care).

Tell your nurse or doctor if your bowels haven't moved for three days, if you're in any discomfort or if you get diarrhoea after being constipated for a while.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers.Endorsed by Canterbury DHB and community palliative care specialists. Last reviewed November 2020.

Sources

Page reference: 321002

Review key: HIPAL-17434