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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(5):1041-1042

Question Addressed

  • What are the effects of treatments for childhood constipation?

Likely to be beneficialTrade off between benefits and harms
Osmotic laxativesCisapride*
Medical treatment plus toilet trainingUnknown effectiveness
Biofeedback training (short-term benefit only)Increased dietary fiber
Stimulant laxatives
DefinitionConstipation is characterized by infrequent bowel evacuations; hard, small feces; or difficult or painful defecation. The frequency of bowel evacuation varies from person to person.1 Encopresis is defined as involuntary bowel movements in inappropriate places at least once a month for three months or more in children four years and older.2
Incidence/PrevalenceConstipation with or without encopresis is common in children. It accounts for 3 percent of consultations to pediatric outpatient clinics and 25 percent of pediatric gastroenterology consultations in the United States.3 Encopresis has been reported in 2 percent of children at school entry. The peak incidence is at two to four years of age.
Etiology/Risk FactorsNo cause is discovered in 90 to 95 percent of children with constipation. Low fiber intake and a family history of constipation may be associated factors.4 Psychosocial factors are often suspected, although most children with constipation are developmentally normal.3 Chronic constipation can lead to progressive fecal retention, distension of the rectum, and loss of sensory and motor function. Organic causes for constipation are uncommon but include Hirschsprung's disease (one per 5,000 births; male-to-female ratio of 4:1; constipation invariably present from birth), cystic fibrosis, anorectal physiologic abnormalities, anal fissures, constipating drugs, dehydrating metabolic conditions, and other forms of malabsorption.3
PrognosisChildhood constipation can be difficult to treat and often requires prolonged support, explanation, and medical treatment. In one long-term follow-up study of children presenting before five years of age, 50 percent recovered within one year and 65 to 70 percent recovered within two years; the remainder required laxatives for daily bowel movements or continued to soil for years.3 It is not known what proportion continue to have problems into adult life, although adults presenting with megarectum or megacolon often have a history of bowel problems from childhood.
Clinical AimsTo remove fecal impaction and to restore a bowel habit in which stools are soft and passed without discomfort.
Clinical OutcomesNumber of defecations per week; number of episodes of soiling per month; gut transit time as measured by timing the passage of radio-opaque pellets, which may be ingested within a gelatin capsule; use of laxatives.

Evidence-Based Medicine Findings


Dietary Fiber

We found no randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on the effects of increasing dietary fiber in children.


Two RCTs in people two to 18 years of age found that cisapride versus placebo significantly improved stool frequency and symptoms of constipation after eight to 12 weeks of treatment in an outpatient setting. We found no evidence from primary care settings. Cisapride has been withdrawn in several countries because of suspected adverse cardiac effects.

Osmotic Laxatives

One RCT in children eight months to 16 years of age found no significant difference with lactitol versus lactulose in stool frequency and consistency of stools, but found that lactulose significantly increased the proportion of children with abdominal pain and flatulence. Another RCT in children 11 months to 13 years of age found limited evidence that lactitol versus lactulose significantly increased stool frequency and consistency from baseline after 15 days of treatment. A third RCT in infants zero to six months of age found that lactulose significantly improved ease of evacuation and consistency of stools from baseline after 14 days of treatment. However, the benefits shown in these three RCTs are comparisons of outcomes before and after treatment, and were not necessarily because of the treatments. One small RCT in children with encopresis found short-term benefit from the addition of toilet training or biofeedback to stimulant or osmotic laxatives.

Stimulant Laxatives

We found no RCTs in children on the effects of stimulant laxatives versus placebo or alternative treatments. One small RCT found short-term benefit from the addition of toilet training or biofeedback to stimulant or osmotic laxatives.


Three RCTs found that biofeedback plus conventional treatment (laxatives alone or laxatives plus dietary advice and toilet training) versus conventional treatment alone significantly improved defecation dynamics and reduced rates of soiling after three to seven months. Two of the RCTs found no significant difference in soiling, stool frequency, or laxative use after one year.

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