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IBS - constipation predominant

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 5 minutes read

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is incredibly common with numbers suggesting it is present in up to 2 in 10 people. Symptoms tend to start when people are in their twenties or thirties, and it is usually possible to make a diagnosis with your doctor based on symptoms rather than endless tests and consultations.

Typical symptoms

IBS can mainly consist of mild symptoms or flare up and cause fairly debilitating symptoms. Fortunately, IBS does not cause any serious health implications, but it can have an impact on people’s day-to-day lives. The predominant symptoms of IBS vary from person to person. Some struggle with constipation, others with diarrhea, and for some pain and bloating, with others varying between episodes of a combination of these.

If the main or most common symptom you suffer from is constipation, then this is known as constipation-predominant IBS, where people suffer from episodes of hard stools and decreased frequency of elimination. Pain or having to strain to pass stools can also be related symptoms. Around one-third of people with IBS suffer from constipation-predominant IBS.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

There are ways to help improve the symptoms of constipation-predominant IBS. These include lifestyle changes such as doing regular exercise, staying well hydrated, and also increasing the amount of fiber in your diet (though you should do this slowly).

Medication can also be used to treat constipation and these medications are known as laxatives. Some laxatives can be purchased over the counter and your local pharmacist can give you advice on what is best for you. However, it is best to see your doctor before you start taking them, especially if you do not have a confirmed diagnosis of IBS. There are also stronger laxative medications that can be prescribed by your doctor if necessary.

Which types of laxatives are best?

There are many types of laxatives, and they work in different ways, so choosing the right one to resolve your symptoms best both quickly and with the least side effects may require some advice from your pharmacist.

In general, many patients with constipation-predominant IBS who approach the pharmacy often have complex symptoms, which may include alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhea, having either feelings of fullness or being very "backed-up", bloating due to trapped gas, or not being able to pass a stool for days.

Scenario 1: "Not been able to go for more than 2-3 days"

In these cases, along with drinking plenty of fluids, and if other laxatives have not worked so far since transit through the gut is too slow, direct action is the best option to get things moving again. Using a rectal formulation such as an enema (for example phosphate enemas), or glycerin suppositories can help soften and hydrate dry hard stools and aid lubrication to help pass them out very quickly, often within an hour of using or less. This is also the best option to prevent the risk of developing piles due to overstraining.

Scenario 2: "Having abdominal cramps or bloating alongside constipation"

Constipation typically involves having reduced bowel frequency due to slower gut transit and harder stools. Stimulant laxatives such as senna or bisacodyl, although they have their advantages for constipation in general by working quickly within 8-12 hours and stimulating the gut to get moving, might not be the best option if your gut is sensitive to the side effects of abdominal cramps associated with IBS.

A more gentle option would be to use a stool softener such as docusate sodium to break down hard stools, or a bulk-forming laxative such as Fybogel which can help form more bulky and softer stools that are easier to pass.

Scenario 3: "Hard, dry or impacted stools and gas"

Fecal impaction is where stools have little form and often can pass as solid pieces alternating with gas. This is often due to a lack of fiber in the diet, lack of mobility, or not drinking enough water. There are a few types of laxatives that would be best for helping with this. However, dietary strategies for increasing fiber intake and fluids are also important for prevention.

Osmotic laxatives work by drawing more water or fluids into the the large bowel, thereby softening stools, making them easier to pass. Typical examples of these types of laxatives include lactulose solution or using a soluble macrogol-containing sachet such as Movicol that can be mixed into a drink and consumed.

Bulk-forming laxatives such as Fybogel, often contain ispaghula husk or psyllium husk. They are a source of soluble fiber to complement the diet, and are taken mixed in a drink which helps to form bulky and airy stools that gently press against the intestinal walls to stimulate the gut and get contents to move down that gastric tract. These are great for relieving symptoms and a source of soluble fiber to maintain regularity and prevent constipation.

When should I see my doctor?

You should book a routine doctor’s appointment if you are experiencing symptoms of IBS. This is so that the doctor can help rule out any other causes of your symptoms and confirm IBS as the likely cause. There is no specific test for IBS and so it is what is called a diagnosis of exclusion, where other conditions are ruled out so that IBS can then be confirmed. If you have any blood in your stools, have unexpectedly lost weight, have a prolonged change in bowel habits (2 weeks) or you have any other symptoms then you should see your doctor.

What will my doctor do?

The doctor will ask you about your symptoms, your medical history, any relevant family medical history, and what medications you are currently taking. They will likely feel your abdomen, listen to see if they can hear bowel sounds, and potentially do other tests such as a blood test. If necessary, the doctor will do a rectal examination to see if they can feel any hard stool to confirm constipation. They will discuss with you a likely diagnosis, recommend lifestyle changes, and potentially prescribe medication if it is required.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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