Clin Colon Rectal Surg 2005; 18(2): 65-75
DOI: 10.1055/s-2005-870886
Copyright © 2005 by Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc., 333 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001, USA.

The Evaluation of Constipation

Matthew D. Vrees1 , Eric G. Weiss1
  • 1Department of Colorectal Surgery, Cleveland Clinic Florida, Weston, Florida
Further Information

Publication History

Publication Date:
24 May 2005 (online)


Constipation is a major medical problem in the United States, affecting 2% to 28% of the population. Individual patients may have different conceptions of what constipation is, and the findings overlap with those in other functional gastrointestinal disorders. In 1999, an international panel of experts laid out specific criteria for the diagnosis of constipation known as the Rome II criteria. When patients present with complaints of constipation, a complete history and physical examination can elicit the cause of constipation. It is imperative to rule out a malignancy or other organic causes of the patient's symptoms prior to making the diagnosis of functional constipation. Many patients' symptoms can be relieved with lifestyle and dietary modification, both of which should be implemented before other potentially unnecessary tests are performed.

Functional constipation is divided into two subtypes: slow transit constipation and obstructive defecation. Because many different terms are used interchangeably to describe these subtypes of constipation, physicians need to be comfortable with the language.

Slow transit constipation is due to abnormal colonic motility. The diagnosis is made with the use of a colonic transit study. We continue to use a single-capsule technique as first described in the literature, but modifications of the capsule technique as well as scintigraphic techniques are validated and can be substituted in place of the capsule.

Obstructive defecation is a much more complex problem, with etiologies ranging from rare diseases such as Hirschsprung's to physiologic abnormalities such as paradoxical puborectalis contraction. To fully evaluate the patient with obstructive defecation, anorectal manometry, defecography, and electromyography should be utilized. The different techniques available for each test are fully covered in this article.

When evaluating each patient with constipation, it is important to keep in mind that the disease may be specific to one subtype or a combination of both subtypes. Because it is difficult to differentiate the subtypes from the patient's history, we feel it is imperative to evaluate patients fully for both slow transit and obstructive defecation prior to any surgical intervention. Furthermore, we have described many tests that need to be applied to one's population of patients on the basis of the capabilities and expertise the institution offers.


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Eric G WeissM.D. 

Department of Colorectal Surgery, Cleveland Clinic Florida

2950 Cleveland Clinic Blvd., Weston, FL 33326