A Rational Approach to Constipation

Hershl Berman, MD, FRCPC, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, Department of Medicine, University Health Network, Toronto, ON.
Laura Brooks, RegN, MscN, APN, Advanced Practice Nurse in Palliative Care, Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, University Health Network, Toronto, ON.
Shawna Silver, MD, PEng, Hospital for Sick Children; University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.

Constipation is a common complaint, especially in older adults. It results in millions of physician visits per year, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on laxatives. Untreated it can lead to serious morbidity and can be a contributing factor in mortality. A rational approach to the patient presenting with constipation includes a detailed history, general and focused physical examination, specific investigations, and appropriate therapy. Treatment should aim to address the underlying cause, as should the choice of laxative. In general, it is best to clear out hard stool in the distal bowel before using an aggressive oral regimen.
Key words: constipation, laxatives, older adults, opioids.