Paediatrics: constipation

2021-03-04 12:00 AM

Defined as the infrequent passage of stool associated with pain and difficulty, or delay in defaecation.

Defined as an infrequent passage of stool associated with pain and difficulty, or delay in defaecation.

  • 95% of infants pass   1 stool/day.
  • 95% of school children pass   3 stools/wk.
  • Constipation is common in childhood.
  • Approximately 5% of school children suffer significant constipation, usually functional.
  • Organic cause more likely if the delayed passage of meconium beyond 24hr of age; onset in infancy; severe; associated with faltering growth or abnormal physical signs (include per anal examination).



Commonest due to a combination of:

  • Low fibre diet.
  • Lack of mobility and exercise.
  • Poor colonic motility (55% have a positive family history).


  • Hirschsprung’s disease.
  • Anal disease (infection, stenosis, ectopic, fissure, hypertonic sphincter).
  • Partial intestinal obstruction.
  • Food hypersensitivity.
  • Coeliac disease.


  • Hypothyroidism.
  • Hypercalcaemia.
  • Neurological disease, e.g. spinal disease.
  • Chronic dehydration, e.g. diabetes insipidus.
  • Drugs, e.g. opiates and anticholinergics.
  • Sexual abuse.


  • Straining and/or infrequent stools.
  • Anal pain on defaecation.
  • Fresh rectal bleeding (anal fissure).
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Anorexia.
  • Involuntary soiling or spurious diarrhoea (liquid faeces passes around solid impaction).
  • Flatulence.
  • ‘fall’ Growth.
  • Abdominal distension.
  • Palpable abdominal or rectal faecal masses, usually indelible.
  • Anal fissure.

Abnormal anal tone. A rectal examination is normally unnecessary unless the child fails to respond to the initiation of simple treatment, except in infancy when anal stenosis should be considered.


Investigations are usually not necessary. If an organic cause is suspected consider FBC; coeliac antibody screen; thyroid function tests; serum Ca2+; RAST testing; AXR; bowel transit studies (older child); rectal biopsy (for Hirschsprung’s disease); anal manometry; spinal imaging (neurological cause).


The vast majority of children can be ‘cured’ by an enthusiastic and sympathetic pediatrician with the complete evacuation of any stool masses, maintaining soft stools, and defaecation training. Many children need long term therapy. Do not underestimate the misery that this condition can inflict on both the child and family.