Constipation Patients Are Suffering in Silence—Here’s How to Help Them

Millions of people live with constipation, with one study estimating that the condition affects 16% of all adults.1 Yet, most patients haven’t tried prescription therapies, a discovery Phreesia Life Sciences made after surveying 6,780 adults age 18 and older who previously had been diagnosed with or treated for constipation as they checked in for their doctors’ appointments.

Why the disconnect? Many patients don’t know about the larger health risks associated with constipation and are unaware of the medications available to treat the condition. Those knowledge gaps present opportunities to employ strategies that promote constipation prescription uptake and help patients find the long-term treatment they need.

Address Patients’ Quality of Life

For many people, constipation, which is generally defined as fewer than three bowel movements a week, is a long-term condition with significant effects on their quality of life. Two-thirds of survey respondents said they had experienced symptoms for at least 12 months, and a similar percentage said constipation has a moderate or great impact on their everyday life.

As those figures suggest, many patients aren’t confident in their current constipation treatment, with only 22% of respondents saying they were managing their condition “very well.” A majority (68%) of respondents had tried home remedies and over-the-counter medications, often taking them for more than a year, despite the fact that such therapies are not indicated for long-term use.

Those patients should be encouraged to talk with their healthcare providers about their chronic constipation—and the dangers of living with it, Ironwood Pharmaceuticals CEO Thomas McCourt says.

“Patients should understand that many OTC products are indicated for acute constipation and should not be taken chronically unless under the supervision of a physician,” McCourt says. “We have to make sure patients are getting adequate care.”

Help Patients Understand the Need for Effective Treatment—and Get It

Fewer than one-third of surveyed patients had tried prescription medicines for their constipation, despite the lack of confidence in their current remedies. The survey’s results suggested two principal barriers to prescription uptake: First, respondents generally were unaware of the dangers of long-term constipation, with only 17%  claiming to fully understand such health risks as hemorrhoids, fecal impaction, and bowel incontinence. Second, patients aren’t communicating clearly with their healthcare provider about their constipation symptoms.

Nearly one-third (31%) of respondents had never discussed their constipation with their doctor, and among those who had broached the subject, it typically came up in fewer than 25% of consultations. In 29% of cases, patients who had never discussed constipation symptoms with their doctor said they hadn’t because they didn’t realize it was a topic they should cover with their provider.

The challenge is to educate patients about the importance of seeking treatment for constipation and to empower them to accurately describe their condition to their doctor.

“Once [patients] believe that, ‘Yes, this is just my body not operating appropriately, and this is a real medical condition,’ they’re more likely to take action” McCourt says. “So, [if patients] get informed and believe that they’re entitled to more effective therapy, then they feel an urgency and a confidence to speak up to their doctor.”

Give Patients the Resources They Want

Indeed, the survey results pointed to both a need for more patient education and an opportunity to inspire patients to take action to address their symptoms, while also shedding light on how to achieve those goals. When asked what types of resources would be most helpful for managing their constipation, survey respondents said they most wanted lifestyle tips, self-management resources, and direct access to their doctor for questions.

While working to provide that requested support, it’s also critical to raise patients’ awareness of the availability of prescription medications to treat their condition. More than half (54%) of survey respondents could not name a single constipation prescription brand, but the survey showed that when patients do discuss prescription medications with their doctor, they tend to start taking them. In the survey group, 32% of patients had talked to their doctor about prescription constipation treatments, and 31% had tried them.

Respondents cited the effectiveness and potential side effects of constipation prescriptions as their top considerations when choosing a medication. And while the survey suggested that the industry still needs to do more to connect patients with the information they want, there are many ways to reach them, including online search, social media, TV, and point-of-care solutions. In particular, digital point-of-care platforms are very powerful with regard to educating patients and helping them more effectively communicate with their doctor, McCourt says.

Using these outreach channels can empower patients to access the care they need to address constipation symptoms that have often compromised their lives for years, and in doing so, help them realize the unfulfilled potential of prescription constipation therapies.


1. “American Gastroenterological Association Medical Position Statement on Constipation,” Gastroenterology, Jan. 1, 2013.


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