Constipation nursing diagnosis

Constipation is one of the most common digestive complaints in the United States in ambulatory centers and a common cause of referral to gastroenterologists and colorectal surgeons. It is a symptom rather than a disease, and despite its frequency, it often remains unrecognized until the client develops sequelae, such as anorectal disorders (Basson & Anand, 2020).


Constipation is generally defined as when bowel movements occur three or fewer times a week and are difficult to pass. The Rome criteria, initially introduced in 1988 and subsequently modified three times to yield the Rome IV criteria, have become the research-standard definition of constipation (Basson & Anand, 2020). According to the Rome IV criteria for constipation, the client must have experienced at least two of the following symptoms over the preceding 3 months:

  • Fewer than three spontaneous bowel movements per week
  • Straining for more than 25% of defecation attempts
  • Lumpy or hard stools for at least 25% of defecation attempts
  • The sensation of anorectal obstruction or blockage for at least 25% of defecation attempts
  • Manual maneuvering is required to defecate for at least 25% of defecation attempts


The cause of constipation is multifactorial. It may arise in the colon or rectum or it may be due to an external cause. In most people, slow colonic motility that occurs after years of laxative abuse is the problem. In a few clients, the cause may be related to an outlet obstruction like rectal prolapse or a rectocele. External causes of constipation may include poor dietary habits, lack of fluid intake, overuse of certain medications, an endocrine problem, or a type of emotional issue (MEW, 2022).


The causes of constipation may be divided into the following broad categories:

  • Functional (non-organic) or retentive: This includes constipation due to fecal withholding behaviors and when all organic causes have been ruled out.
  • Anatomic causes: This includes anal stenosis or atresia, anteriorly displaced anus, imperforate anus, intestinal stricture, and anal stricture.
  • Abnormal musculature: Related causes include prune belly syndrome, gastroschisis, Down syndrome, and muscular dystrophy.
  • Intestinal nerve abnormality causes: The causes include Hirschsprung disease, pseudo-obstruction, intestinal neuronal dysplasia, spinal cord defects, tethered cord, and spina bifida.
  • Drugs: Drugs like anticholinergics, narcotics, antidepressants, lead, and vitamin d intoxication can cause constipation.
  • Metabolic and endocrine causes: This includes hypokalemia, hypercalcemia, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, or diabetes insipidus.
  • Other causes include celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, cow milk protein allergy, inflammatory bowel disease, and scleroderma among others.


Chronic constipation is highly prevalent and affects approximately 15% of persons in the United States. In 2006, the number of constipation-related healthcare provider visits reached 5.7 million, and of these, 2.7 million visits had constipation as the primary diagnosis. About 2% of the population describes constant or frequent intermittent episodes of constipation. Worldwide, approximately 12% of people suffer from self-defined constipation. Female sex, age, and educational class were strongly associated with the prevalence of constipation (Basson & Anand, 2020).

An age-related increase in the incidence of constipation has been observed, with 30%-40% of adults older than 65 years citing constipation as a problem. Self-reported constipation and admissions to hospitals for constipation are more common in women than in men. The overall female-to-male ratio is approximately 3:1. The condition is seen fairly frequently during pregnancy and is common after childbirth (Basson & Anand, 2020).

Signs and symptoms

Basing the diagnosis on simply asking the clients whether they are constipated is associated with marked underreporting of the problem. A constipated client may be otherwise totally asymptomatic or may complain of one or more of the following:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Pain on defecation
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Spurious diarrhea
  • Low back pain
  • A feeling of incomplete evacuation
  • Straining
  • Digital extraction
  • Tenesmus
  • Enema retention

The following signs and symptoms, if presented by the client, can be concerning:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal pain
  • Inability to pass flatus
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever


Management for constipation includes medical supervision, dietary instructions, behavioral changes, and instructions regarding toilet training (MEW, 2022).

  • Medical supervision: Medical care should focus on dietary change and exercise rather than laxatives, enemas, and suppositories, none of which really addresses the underlying problem. Potentially helpful measures include initiation of dietary fiber supplementation and stimulant and/or osmotic laxatives, as appropriate; if necessary, these can be followed by intestinal secretagogues and/or prokinetic agents (Basson & Anand, 2020).
  • Dietary instructions: The key to treating most clients with constipation is the correction of dietary deficiencies. This generally involves increasing the intake of fiber and fluid and decreasing the use of constipating agents, such as milk products, coffee, tea, and alcohol (Basson & Anand, 2020).
  • Toilet training: In pediatric cases, long-term success in the management of constipation depends on the child establishing regular and routine toilet times. It is generally recommended that the child be encouraged to attend to the toilet twice daily for 5-10 minutes, preferably after breakfast and after supper to take advantage of the gastrocolic reflex. For school-aged children, it is preferable not to expect the child to attend the toilet while at school (Borowitz & Cuffari, 2022).

Nursing Diagnosis for Constipation

Nursing Diagnosis




Inappropriate toileting behaviors / elimination urgency / abdominal distention / pain on defecation / straining / rectal bleeding / low back pain / fever / rectal bleeding /  abdominal pain / inability to pass flatus


Lost neurological functioning

Changes in dietary and fluid intake

Inability to recognize the need for elimination

Changes in the level of activity

Risk for imbalanced nutrition

Nursing Diagnosis

Acute Pain



Communication of pain descriptors / Abdominal pain / pain on defecation / low back pain / abdominal guarding / facial grimacing / rigid body posture / tachycardia / restlessness / diaphoresis


Inability to perform activities of daily living

Social isolation

Decreased appetite

Weight loss

Nursing Diagnosis

Risk for Chronic Functional Constipation



Small, hard stools / infrequent, large bowel movements / bright, red blood on the stool / weakness / abdominal pain / vomiting / urinary symptoms / obesity


Ineffective toilet training

Limited physical activity

A general feeling of malaise

Self-medicating with laxatives

Nursing Diagnosis

Risk for Dysfunctional Gastrointestinal Motility



Abdominal pain and distention / difficulty swallowing / gastric content reflux / nausea / vomiting / weight loss / constipation / excessive flatus


Risk for constipation

Abdominal discomfort

Limited physical activity

Nursing Diagnosis

Deficient Knowledge



Verbalization of questions / statement of misconception / inaccurate follow-through of instructions / development of preventable complications / request for information


Development of complications

Information misinterpretation

Unfamiliarity with terms and procedures

Lack of cooperation and poor adherence to treatment

Nursing Diagnosis

Impaired Comfort



Reports of discomfort / distraction behaviors / anxiety / restlessness / irritability / tachycardia / abdominal guarding


Muscle tension

Utilization of ineffective coping methods

Diminished ability to complete tasks

Social isolation


Nursing Diagnosis

Risk for Injury



Laxative dependency / Rectal pain and bleeding / Rectal itching / engorgement of the rectal columns / painful tear in the anoderm / delayed healing of an anal fissure



Pelvic floor damage

Rectal prolapse

Fecal impaction

Anal fissures

Drug dependency

Nursing Diagnosis

Risk for Deficient Fluid Volume



Dry mucous membranes / weight loss / decreased urine output / hypotension / tachycardia / decreased skin turgor / nausea / vomiting / cool, clammy skin / weak pulses



Hypotonic laxative colon

Risk for circulatory collapse


  1. Basson, M. D., & Anand, B. (2020, March 30). Constipation: Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology. Medscape Reference. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from
  2. Borowitz, S. M., & Cuffari, C. (2022, June 17). Pediatric Constipation Treatment & Management: Approach Considerations, Colon Evacuation, Removal of Pain-Associated Defecation. Medscape Reference. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from
  3. Doenges, M. E., Moorhouse, M. F., & Murr, A. C. (2010). Nursing Care Plans: Guidelines for Individualizing Client Care Across the Life Span. F.A. Davis Company.
  4. MEW, T. (2022, May 22). Constipation – StatPearls. NCBI. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from
  5. Olaru, C., Diaconescu, S., Trandafir, L., Gimiga, N., Stefanescu, G., Ciubotariu, G., & Burlea, M. (2016, October 26). Some Risk Factors of Chronic Functional Constipation Identified in a Pediatric Population Sample from Romania. NCBI. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from


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