Chronic idiopathic constipation in adults: epidemiology, pathophysiology, diagnosis and clinical management

Med J Aust. 2018 Jul 16;209(2):86-91. doi: 10.5694/mja18.00241.


Chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders, with a global prevalence of 14%. It is commoner in women and its prevalence increases with age. There are three subtypes of CIC: dyssynergic defaecation, slow transit constipation and normal transit constipation, which is the most common subtype. Clinical assessment of the patient with constipation requires careful history taking, in order to identify any red flag symptoms that would necessitate further investigation with colonoscopy to exclude colorectal malignancy. Screening for hypercalcaemia, hypothyroidism and coeliac disease with appropriate blood tests should be considered. A digital rectal examination should be performed to assess for evidence of dyssynergic defaecation. If this is suspected, further investigation with high resolution anorectal manometry should be undertaken. Anorectal biofeedback can be offered to patients with dyssynergic defaecation as a means of correcting the associated impairment of pelvic floor, abdominal wall and rectal functioning. Lifestyle modifications, such as increasing dietary fibre, are the first step in managing other causes of CIC. If patients do not respond to these simple changes, then treatment with osmotic and stimulant laxatives should be trialled. Patients not responding to traditional laxatives should be offered treatment with prosecretory agents such as lubiprostone, linaclotide and plecanatide, or the 5-HT4 receptor agonist prucalopride, where available. If there is no response to pharmacological treatment, surgical intervention can be considered, but it is only suitable for a carefully selected subset of patients with proven slow transit constipation.

Keywords: Irritable bowel syndrome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Chronic Disease
  • Constipation* / diagnosis
  • Constipation* / epidemiology
  • Constipation* / physiopathology
  • Constipation* / therapy
  • Humans