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National Collaborating Centre for Women's and Children's Health (UK). Constipation in Children and Young People: Diagnosis and Management of Idiopathic Childhood Constipation in Primary and Secondary Care. London: RCOG Press; 2010. (NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 99.)

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Constipation in Children and Young People: Diagnosis and Management of Idiopathic Childhood Constipation in Primary and Secondary Care.

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2.1. Idiopathic constipation in children

Constipation is common in childhood. It is prevalent in around 5–30% of children, depending on the criteria used for diagnosis. Symptoms become chronic in more than one third of patients and constipation is a common reason for referral to secondary care.2,3,4,5 Morbidity may be under-reported as people may not seek advice because they are embarrassed.

The exact cause of constipation is not fully understood but factors that may contribute include: pain, fever, dehydration, dietary and fluid intake, psychological issues, toilet training, medicines and familial history of constipation. Constipation is referred to as ‘idiopathic’ if it cannot be explained by anatomical or physiological abnormalities.

Many people don't recognise the signs and symptoms of constipation and few relate the presence of soiling to constipation. The signs and symptoms of childhood idiopathic constipation include: infrequent bowel activity, foul smelling wind and stools, excessive flatulence, irregular stool texture, passing occasional enormous stools or frequent small pellets, withholding or straining to stop passage of stools, soiling or overflow, abdominal pain, distension or discomfort, poor appetite, lack of energy, unhappy, angry or irritable mood and general malaise.6

Painful defecation is an important factor in constipation but it is not always recognised; ‘withholding’ behaviours to prevent passage of painful stools are often confused with straining to pass stools. Families may delay seeking help for fear of a negative response from healthcare professionals. It has been suggested that some healthcare professionals underestimate the impact of constipation on the child or young person and their family.7 This may contribute to the poor clinical outcomes often seen in children and young people with constipation.

Soiling is debilitating but rarely life threatening, so it might be expected to have little impact on healthcare provision. But many children and young people experience social, psychological and educational consequences that require prolonged support.

Some children and young people with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, are more prone to idiopathic constipation as a result of impaired mobility. Children and young people with Down's syndrome and autism are also more prone to the condition. It is important that assessment and ongoing management for these children and young people happen in the same way as is recommended for all children and young people.

Without early diagnosis and treatment, an acute episode of constipation can lead to anal fissure and become chronic. By the time the child or young person is seen they may be in a vicious cycle. Children and young people and their families are often given conflicting advice and practice is inconsistent, making treatment potentially less effective and frustrating for all concerned. Early identification of constipation and effective treatment can improve outcomes for children and young people.8,9,10 This guideline provides strategies based on the best available evidence to support early identification, positive diagnosis and timely, effective management. Implementation of this guideline will provide a consistent, coordinated approach and will improve outcomes for children and young people.

2.2. Aim and scope of the guideline

This guideline aims to provide guidance in the following areas:

  • diagnosis of idiopathic constipation, including:

    patient history

    clinical examination, including the role of digital rectal examination

    diagnostic criteria (for example, ROME III criteria)

    investigations to rule out alternative diagnoses such as Hirschsprung's disease or coeliac disease including:

    blood tests

    radiological investigations

    gastrointestinal endoscopy


    rectal biopsy

  • management, including:

    dietary manipulation, such as the role of water and milk intake, fruits, vegetables (fibres and roughage), fruit juices and cereals

    exclusion of cows' milk protein

    physical activity

    pharmacological treatments, specifically bulk-forming laxatives, stimulant laxatives and osmotic laxatives

    psychological and behavioural management including:

    toilet training

    behavioural modification

    maintaining toilet diaries


    psychosocial counselling such as biofeedback therapy and intense psychotherapy

    complementary and alternative interventions, specifically abdominal massage, reflexology and hypnotherapy

    surgical management, including manual evacuation under general anaesthetic and antegrade colonic enema (ACE procedure)

  • indications for referral to specialist services
  • information and support needs for children and families.

The following areas are specifically excluded from the guideline:

  • diagnosis and treatment of another disease identified during the diagnosis of childhood idiopathic constipation
  • management and diagnosis of comorbidity
  • care received in specialist services after referral
  • additional management for children with an underlying, congenital, genetic, metabolic, endocrine or neurological disorder who also have constipation.

Further information about the areas that are covered by the guideline is available in the Scope of the guideline (reproduced in appendix A).

2.3. Abbreviations and glossary



accident and emergency department


antegrade colonic enema


antigliadin antibodies


Avon longitudinal study of parents and children


allergic proctitis


anorectal manometry


balloon expulsion test


British National Formulary for Children


behavioural therapy


complementary and alternative medicine


child and adolescent mental health services


coeliac disease


colony forming unit


confidence interval


constipation-predominant irritable bowel syndrome


cerebral palsy


colonic transit time


digital rectal examination


emergency department


endomysium antibodies




European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition


functional abdominal pain


functional non-retentive faecal incontinence


functional constipation


functional faecal retention




geometric centre


guideline development group




Hirschsprung's disease


irritable bowel syndrome


idiopathic constipation


fructo-oligosaccharide (see FOS)


intestinal dysganglionoses




intestinal neuronal dysplasia


intention to treat


lactobacillus rhamnosus GG


likelihood ratio


Leeds satisfaction questionnaire


Malone antegrade colonic enema (see ACE)


milk of magnesia


Measure of Processes of Care


National Collaborating Centre for Women's and Children's Health


normal delayed transit constipation


National Health Service


National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence


nurse-led clinic


paediatric constipation


paediatric evaluation of disability inventory


polyethylene glycol


paediatric gastroenterology clinic


paediatric slow transit constipation


quality adjusted life year


rectoanal inhibitory reflex


recurrent abdominal pain


randomised controlled trial


receiver operator characteristic


rectal suction biopsy


rectosigmoid transit time


severity symptom score


slow transit constipation


total gastrointestinal transit time


tissue transglutaminase




urinary tract infection

Glossary of terms

Acute constipation

Self-limiting constipation

Allergic proctitis

Proctitis is an inflammation of the rectum. Allergic proctitis is inflammation attributed to allergic causes. The causes of the allergies have been attributed mostly to dietary proteins

Anal stenosis

A narrowing of the anus which results in a reduced lumen and particularly a loss of the capacity to dilate with passage of faeces. This, in turn, results in straining, passage of ribbon-like faeces and constipation.

Anal wink

The reflex contraction of the external anal sphincter

Antegrade colonic enema procedure

A surgical procedure in which a channel is created, most frequently into the caecum, in the large intestine. This allows a catheter to be inserted and the bowel to be washed out. Sometimes known as Malone antegrade colonic enema (MACE) procedure

Anteriorly placed anus

A congenital malformation in which the anus is malpositioned


Treatment method involving teaching the individual how to relax the external anal sphincter during straining. Treatment modalities include manometric and electromyographic biofeedback

Chronic constipation

Constipation lasting longer than 8 weeks

Colony-forming unit

A measure of viable (living) bacterial or fungal cells numbers. Results are given as colony-forming units per millilitre (CFU/mL) for water and colony-forming units per gram (CFU/g) for soil or other porous material


A term to describe the subjective complaint of passage of abnormally delayed or infrequent passage of dry, hardened faeces often accompanied by straining and/or pain


The frequent passage of loose or watery stools, usually accompanied by abdominal cramping and urgency

Digital rectal examination

Examination of the lower rectum using a gloved, lubricated finger to check for abnormalities


The evacuation of impacted faeces


Deliberate defecation in an inappropriate place. This is not to be confused with soiling

Faecal impaction

Severe constipation with a large faecal mass in either the rectum or the abdomen, and/or overflow soiling

Faecal incontinence

The involuntary leakage of faeces

Functional constipation

See idiopathic constipation

Hirschsprung's disease

A congenital abnormality in which the nerve cells in a section of the bowel are not present. As a result, faeces can become trapped in the bowel

Idiopathic constipation

Constipation is termed idiopathic when it cannot (currently) be explained by any anatomical, physiological, radiological or histological abnormalities. The exact aetiology is not fully understood but it is generally accepted that a combination of factors may contribute to the condition

Intractable constipation

Constipation which does not respond to sustained, optimum medical management

Kerckring folds

Circular folds projecting into the lumen of the the small bowel composed of reduplications of the mucous membrane


Osmotic laxatives. Macrogols with the mean molecular weight of 3350 and 4000 are used as laxatives


An abnormally enlarged colon that can be congenital (as in Hirschsprung's disease) or acquired (as in chronic constipation)


A large rectum as a result of chronic faecal loading

Optimum management

Management as set out in this guideline

Organic constipation

Constipation is termed organic when there is an identifiable physiological or anatomical cause

Osmotic laxatives

Laxatives which increase the amount of water in the faeces thereby making them softer

Patulous anus

Widely patent anal orifice

Rectoanal inhibitory reflex

Relaxation of the internal anal sphincter in response to increased pressure of stool, gas or liquid entering the rectum. If voluntary muscle action occurs, the rectum empties through the anal canal. This reflex is absent in cases of congenital megacolon.

Retentive posturing

Typical straight-legged, tiptoed, back-arching posture

ROME (II and III) criteria

The Rome criteria is a system developed to classify functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs); disorders of the digestive system in which symptoms cannot be explained by the presence of structural or tissue abnormality, based on clinical symptoms. Some examples of FGIDs include irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, functional constipation and functional heartburn. The most recent revision of the criteria, the Rome III criteria, was published in 2006. Further details can be found on the Rome Foundation website [].

Side effects/adverse effects

An undesired effect resulting from treatment


The intentional spreading of faeces

Soiling/overflow soiling

Involuntary passage of fluid or semi solid stool into clothing as a result of overflow from a faecally loaded bowel


Healthcare professional with either interest, experience and/or training in the diagnosis and treatment of constipation in children and young people, such as specialist continence nurse or community paediatrician with an interest

Specialist services

Services for children and young people which include constipation management

Stimulant laxatives

Laxatives which increase bowel motility

2.4. For whom is the guidance intended?

This guidance is of relevance to those who work in or use the National Health Service (NHS) in England and Wales, in particular:

  • GPs and primary care and child health teams
  • professional groups which are routinely involved in the care of children and families
  • professionals who may encounter children in the course of their professional duties, for example radiographers, mental health professionals and surgeons
  • those responsible for commissioning and planning healthcare services, including primary care trust commissioners, Health Commission Wales commissioners and public health and trust managers.
  • professionals working in social services and education/childcare settings, including school nurses.

2.5. Other relevant documents

This guideline is intended to complement other existing and proposed works of relevance, including the following guidance published by NICE.

  • ‘Coeliac Disease’ (NICE clinical guideline 86 11)
  • ‘Urinary tract infection in children’ (NICE clinical guideline 54 12)
  • ‘Nocturnal enuresis’ (NICE clinical guideline 79, expected publication date October 2010)
  • ‘Maternal and child nutrition’ (NICE public health guideline 11)
  • ‘When to suspect child maltreatment’ (NICE clinical guideline 89)
  • ‘Medicines adherence’ (NICE clinical guideline 76)

2.6. Who has developed the guidance?

The guidance was developed by the Guideline Development Group (GDG), a multi-professional and lay working group convened by the National Collaborating Centre for Women's and Children's Health (NCC-WCH). Membership included:

  • a specialist paediatric nurse (Chair)
  • two general practitioners
  • two paediatricians
  • a dietician
  • a psychologist
  • a paediatric surgeon
  • a gastrointestinal nurse
  • a community nurse
  • a health visitor
  • two patient/carer members.

Staff from the NCC-WCH provided methodological support for the guidance development process, undertook systematic searches, retrieved and appraised the evidence and wrote successive drafts of the guidance.

An external advisor was appointed by the GDG to advise on pharmacological interventions.

All GDG members' and external advisers' potential and actual conflicts of interest were recorded on declaration forms provided by NICE (summarised in appendix B). The group was asked to declare interests at every GDG meeting. At the end of development, it became apparent that one of the GDG members had a personal pecuniary interest which would have precluded them from discussions about clinical management had it been declared earlier. In light of this, the recommendations were considered in consultation with the Chair. It was agreed that the majority of the recommendations should stand, as they appropriately represented the evidence and the GDG's consensus in interpreting that evidence. Some amendments were made to the recommendations on clinical management to ensure that they reflected the strength of the underlying evidence.

2.7. Guideline development methodology

This guidance was commissioned by NICE and developed in accordance with the guideline development process outlined in the NICE Guidelines Manual (2009).13 Table 2.1 summarises the key stages of the process and indicates which version of the Guidelines Manual was followed at each stage.

Table 2.1. Stages in the NICE guideline development process and versions of ‘The Guidelines Manual’ followed at each stage.

Table 2.1

Stages in the NICE guideline development process and versions of ‘The Guidelines Manual’ followed at each stage.

In accordance with NICE's Equality Scheme, ethnic and cultural considerations and factors relating to disabilities have been considered by the GDG throughout the development process and specifically addressed in individual recommendations where relevant. Further information is available from the NICE website [].

Forming clinical questions and search strategies

The GDG formulated clinical questions based on the scope (see appendix D). These formed the starting point for subsequent evidence reviews. Relevant published evidence to answer the clinical questions was identified by applying systematic search strategies (see Appendix J) to the following databases: Medline (1950 onwards), Embase (1980 onwards), Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL; 1982 onwards), and three Cochrane databases (Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews and the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects). Searches to identify economic studies were undertaken using the above databases and the NHS Economic Evaluation Database (NHS EED). None of the searches was limited by date or language of publication (although publications in languages other than English were not reviewed). Generic and specially developed search filters were used to identify particular study designs, such as randomised controlled trials (RCTs). There was no systematic attempt to search grey literature (conferences, abstracts, theses and unpublished trials), and hand searching of journals not indexed on the databases was not undertaken.

Towards the end of the guideline development process, the searches were updated and re-executed, to include evidence published and indexed in the databases by 20 July 2009. See appendix D for full details of the systematic searches, including the sources searched and the search strategies for each review question.

Reviewing and grading the evidence

Evidence relating to clinical effectiveness was reviewed and graded using the hierarchical system presented in table 2.2. This system reflects the susceptibility to bias inherent in particular study designs.

Table 2.2. Levels of evidence for intervention studies.

Table 2.2

Levels of evidence for intervention studies.

The type of clinical question dictates the highest level of evidence that may be sought. In assessing the quality of the evidence, each study receives a quality rating coded as ‘++’, ‘+’ or ‘–’. For issues of therapy or treatment, the highest possible evidence level (EL) is a well-conducted systematic review or meta-analysis of RCTs (EL = 1++) or an individual RCT (EL = 1+). Studies of poor quality are rated as ‘–’. Usually, studies rated as ‘–’ should not be used as a basis for making a recommendation, but they can be used to inform recommendations.

For each clinical question, the highest available level of evidence was sought. Where appropriate, studies of a weaker design were not considered; for example, if a systematic review, meta-analysis or RCT was identified to answer a question. Where systematic reviews, meta-analyses and RCTs were not identified, other appropriate experimental or observational studies were sought. For diagnostic tests, test evaluation studies examining the performance of the test were used if the effectiveness (accuracy) of the test was required. However, where an evaluation of the effectiveness of the test in the clinical management of patients and the outcome of disease was required, evidence from RCTs or cohort studies was optimal. For studies evaluating the accuracy of a diagnostic test, sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive values (PPVs) and negative predictive values (NPVs) were calculated or quoted where possible (see table 2.3).

Table 2.3. ‘2 × 2’ table for calculation of diagnostic accuracy parameters.

Table 2.3

‘2 × 2’ table for calculation of diagnostic accuracy parameters.

This hierarchical system covers studies of treatment effectiveness. However, it is less appropriate for studies reporting accuracy of diagnostic tests. In the absence of a validated ranking system for this type of test, NICE has developed a hierarchy of evidence that takes into account various factors likely to affect the validity of such studies (see table 2.4).

Table 2.4. Levels of evidence for studies of the accuracy of diagnostic tests.

Table 2.4

Levels of evidence for studies of the accuracy of diagnostic tests.

Summary results and data are presented in the text. More detailed results and data are presented in the evidence tables provided in appendix J. Where possible, dichotomous outcomes are presented as relative risks (RRs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) and continuous outcomes are presented as mean differences with 95% CIs or standard deviations (SDs).

The body of evidence identified for each clinical question was synthesised qualitatively in clinical evidence statements. Studies were pooled and quantitative synthesis (meta-analysis) was undertaken for two clinical questions in this guideline as it was felt that there were a sufficient number of similar studies to merit such analysis: these questions were the effectiveness of polyethylene glycol 3350 compared to lactulose in the maintenance section and effectiveness of biofeedback in the section on psychological and behavioural interventions.

Health economics

The aims of the health economic input to the guideline were to inform the GDG of potential economic issues relating to the management of idiopathic constipation, and to ensure that recommendations represented a cost-effective use of healthcare resources. Health economic evaluations aim to integrate data on benefits (ideally in terms of quality adjusted life years [QALYs]), harms and cost of alternative options.

The GDG prioritised a number of clinical questions where it was thought that economic considerations would be particularly important in formulating recommendations. Systematic searches for published economic evidence were undertaken for these questions. For economic evaluations, no standard system of grading the quality of evidence exists and included papers were assessed using a quality assessment checklist based on good practice in economic evaluation.14 Reviews of the (very limited) relevant published economic literature are presented alongside the clinical effectiveness reviews or as part of appendices detailing original economic analyses (see below).

For this guideline an economic evaluation was conducted to support the area of cost effectiveness of methods of disimpaction and maintenance of idiopathic constipation in children.

Evidence to recommendations

For each clinical question, recommendations for clinical care were derived using, and linked explicitly to, the evidence that supported them. In the first instance, informal consensus methods were used by the GDG to agree clinical and, where appropriate, cost-effectiveness evidence statements. Statements summarising the GDG's interpretation of the evidence and any extrapolation from the evidence used to form recommendations were also prepared to ensure transparency in the decision-making process.

In areas where no substantial clinical research evidence was identified (key components of history-taking and physical examination), the GDG made consensus statements and used its collective experience to identify good practice. The health economics justification in areas of the guideline where the use of NHS resources (interventions) was considered was based on GDG consensus in relation to the likely cost-effectiveness implications of the recommendations. The GDG also identified areas where evidence to answer the group's clinical questions was lacking and used this information to formulate recommendations for future research.

Towards the end of the guideline development process, informal consensus methods (show of hands) were used to identify ten ‘key priorities for implementation’ (key recommendations) and five high priority research recommendations. The key priorities for implementation were those recommendations likely to have the biggest impact on patient care and patient outcomes in the NHS as a whole.

Stakeholder involvement in the guideline development process

Registered stakeholder organisations were invited to comment on the draft scope of the guideline and the draft guideline. Stakeholder organisations were also invited to undertake a pre-publication check of the final guideline to identify factual inaccuracies. The GDG carefully considered and responded to all comments received from stakeholder organisations. The comments and responses, which were reviewed independently for NICE by a Guidelines Review Panel, are published on the NICE website.

A full list of the stakeholders for this guideline can be found in appendix C.

In addition, children and young people were consulted on the content (scope) of the guideline using a questionnaire survey and on the guideline recommendations via a stakeholder meeting. See appendix F for further details of this work.

2.8. Schedule for updating the guidance

Clinical guidelines commissioned by NICE are published with a review date 3 years from date of publication. Reviewing may begin earlier than 3 years if significant evidence that affects guideline recommendations is identified sooner.

Copyright © 2010, National Collaborating Centre for Women's and Children's Health.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher or, in the case of reprographic reproduction, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency in the UK []. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the terms stated here should be sent to the publisher at the UK address printed on this page.

The use of registered names, trademarks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant laws and regulations and therefore for general use.

Bookshelf ID: NBK65359


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