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Gastrointestinal Complications


Description and Causes

Common factors that may cause constipation in healthy people are eating a low-fiber diet, postponing visits to the toilet, using laxatives and enemas excessively, not drinking enough fluids, and exercising too little. In persons with cancer, constipation may be a symptom of cancer, a result of a growing tumor, or a result of cancer treatment. Constipation may also be a side effect of medications for cancer or cancer pain and may be a result of other changes in the body (organ failure, decreased ability to move, and depression). Other causes of constipation include dehydration and not eating enough. Cancer, cancer treatment, aging, and declining health can contribute to causing constipation.

More specific causes of constipation include:



Changed Bowel Habits

Immobility and Lack of Exercise

Bowel Disorders

Muscle and Nerve Disorders (nerve damage can lead to loss of muscle tone in the bowel)

Body Metabolism Disorders

Environmental Factors

Assessment of Constipation

A medical history and physical examination can identify the causes of constipation. The examination may include a digital rectal exam (the doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to check for stool impaction) or a test for blood in the stool. If cancer is suspected, a thorough examination of the rectum and colon may be done with a lighted tube inserted through the anus and into the colon. The following questions may be asked:


Treatment of constipation includes prevention (if possible), elimination of possible causes, and limited use of laxatives. Constipation caused by opioid pain medicine may be treated with a drug given by injection. Suggestions for the patient's treatment plan may include the following:

Current Clinical Trials

Check NCI’s list of cancer clinical trials for U.S. supportive and palliative care trials about constipation, impaction, and bowel obstruction that are now accepting participants. The list of trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.