Constipation in palliative care

Key points about constipation in palliative care

  • Constipation refers to a change in your usual bowel movement pattern so your poos become hard and lumpy. This can make them difficult or painful to get out.
  • Constipation can cause symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, stomach pain and bloating, overflow diarrhoea and bowel obstruction.
  • For people living with a terminal illness there may be several causes of constipation including other medical conditions, diet, immobility and medication.
  • Laxatives are often used to treat constipation. 
  • There are several things you can do to help ease and prevent constipation, including eating high fibre foods, drinking plenty of fluids and being active, if possible.
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Constipation can be different for everyone. Generally, constipation can mean:

  • a change in your usual bowel movement pattern
  • hard or lumpy bowel movements
  • difficulty passing bowel movements or straining
  • gas, wind, bloating or stomach cramps and discomfort
  • the feeling of being unable to completely empty your bowel
  • the feeling that there is something blocking your bowel.

The feeling of being constipated can be distressing and can cause symptoms such as:

Constipation near the end of life often has more than one cause. Common causes include:

Your doctor may ask you some questions to find out the possible causes of your constipation. They may do a physical examination, including a rectal examination, to check for signs of illness or disease. They may also carry out tests, such as blood and urine tests, to rule out physical causes.

Treatment of constipation depends on the cause of your constipation. If you have a medical condition or any obvious causes of constipation are found, treatment will focus on the condition or cause. If you are on a medicine that can cause constipation, your doctor may ask you to stop taking the medicine. 


Laxatives are used to treat constipation. Different types of laxatives work in different ways to one another. The choice of medicine will depend on what has caused your constipation. You may need more than one type of laxative. 

Common laxatives that may be prescribed include:

  • macrogols
  • docusate sodium
  • sennoside B
  • bisacodyl
  • senna.

Some of these medicines can be taken by mouth. Others are taken as a suppository or an enema inserted in your bottom. Read more about laxatives

There are several things you can do to help manage constipation. These include the following:

  • Drink more fluids.
  • Eat regular meals and increase fibre intake, such as eating more fruit and vegetables, beans, wholegrains and cereals.
  • Try natural laxatives such as dried fruits, prunes and apricots.
  • Be active if possible.
  • Make sure it is easy for you to go to the toilet and that you have enough privacy in the toilet.
  • Make sure you take your laxatives regularly if prescribed by a doctor.
  • Massage your tummy to encourage bowel movements.
  • Keep track of and review your symptoms regularly.
  • Contact your healthcare providers if your symptoms don't improve. 

People living with constipation can feel distressed and have reduced quality of life. Talk through your feelings with your family and friends to get the support you need. 

Below are some support services and information for people affected by cancer and their family/whānau:

Emotions and cancer(external link) Cancer Society of NZ
How we can help(external link) Cancer Society of NZ
NZ cancer services – find a hospital/service near you(external link) Healthpoint, NZ
More cancer support groups

Constipation in palliative care(external link) HealthInfo, NZ
Constipation(external link) Marie Curie, UK 
Managing the symptoms of cancer(external link) Macmillan Cancer Support, UK


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Credits: Healthify Editorial Team

Reviewed by: Dr Karen Chung

Last reviewed:

Page last updated: