Drug treatments for constipation caused by antipsychotic medications

Constipation is a common side effect for people taking antipsychotic medications, especially clozapine. It has been shown that clozapine reduces bowel motility, and the consequences of this are sometimes serious. For every thousand patients treated with clozapine, it is thought that 300 to 600 will suffer constipation; at least four will develop serious gastrointestinal complications (such as bowel obstruction), from which at least one will die.


In June 2015, we searched for trials that compared medicines used to treat antipsychotic-related constipation (such as laxatives) against any other treatment. However, we found little useful information. We identified two relevant studies in the Chinese literature, but none in the Western literature.

Main results
The identified studies were of short duration, very likely to be biased, and provided very low-quality evidence. One study suggested that a glycerol suppository was less effective than acupuncture or tuina massage, and the other suggested that mannitol, an osmotic laxative, was more effective than rhubarb soda or phenolphthalein in treating constipation.

Based on our results, we conclude there is currently no good quality trial-based evidence available that can guide clinicians and patients in the pharmacological treatment of antipsychotic-related constipation.

Authors' conclusions: 

We had hoped to find clinically useful evidence appraising the relative merits of the interventions routinely used to manage antipsychotic-related constipation, a common and potentially serious adverse effect of the use of these drugs. The results were disappointing. There were no data comparing the common pharmacological interventions for constipation, such as lactulose, polyethylene glycol, stool softeners, lubricant laxatives, or of novel treatments such as linaclotide. Data available were very poor quality and the trials had a high risk of bias. Data from these biased studies suggested that mannitol, an osmotic laxative, was more effective than rhubarb soda and phenolphthalein in relieving constipation, and a two-week course of glycerol suppositories was less effective than the TCM approaches of tuina massage and acupuncture.

Overall, there is insufficient trial-based evidence to assess the effectiveness and safety of pharmacological interventions for treating antipsychotic-related constipation, due to limited, poor quality data (few studies with high risk of bias and no meta-analyses). The methodological limitations in the included studies were obvious, and any conclusions based on their results should be made with caution. Methodologically rigorous RCTs evaluating interventions for treating antipsychotic-related constipation are needed.

Read the full abstract...

Antipsychotic-related constipation is a common and serious adverse effect, especially for people taking clozapine. Clozapine has been shown to impede gastrointestinal motility, leading to constipation, and has been reported in up to 60% of patients receiving clozapine. In rare cases, complications can be fatal. Appropriate laxatives should be prescribed to treat constipation in people taking antipsychotics, but there is a lack of guidance on the comparative effectiveness and harms of different agents in this population. An understanding of the effectiveness and safety of treatment for antipsychotic-related constipation is important for clinicians and patients alike.


To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of pharmacologic treatment (versus placebo or compared against another treatment) for antipsychotic-related constipation (defined as constipated patients of any age, who are treated with antipsychotics, regardless of dose, in which constipation is considered to be an antipsychotic-related side effect).

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Schizophrenia Group’s Trials Register (15 June 2015), which is based on regular searches of MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, BIOSIS, AMED, PubMed, PsycINFO, and registries of clinical trials, grey literature, and conference proceedings. There are no language, date, document type, or publication status limitations for inclusion of records in this register. We also handsearched bibliographies and contacted relevant authors for additional information.

Selection criteria: 

We included all published and unpublished randomised controlled trials (RCTs) investigating the efficacy of pharmacological treatments in patients with antipsychotic-related constipation. Pharmacological treatments included laxatives and other medicines that could reasonably be used to combat constipation in this population (e.g. anticholinergic agents, like bethanecol).

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data from all included studies and assessed trials for risk of bias. A third author reviewed 20% of trials. We analysed dichotomous data using relative risks (RR) and the 95% confidence intervals (CI). We assessed risk of bias for included studies and used GRADE to create a 'Summary of findings' table. We discussed any disagreement, documented decisions, and attempted to contact study authors when necessary.

Main results: 

We identified two relevant Chinese studies (N = 480) that contributed data to this review. Both studies were over ten years old and poorly reported, lacking descriptions of contemporary CONSORT reporting prerequisites, such as sequence generation, allocation concealment, blinding, participant flow, how the sample size was determined, or how outcomes were measured. The studies also did not report trial registration, pre-specified protocols, consent processes, ethical review, or funding source. We were unsuccessful in making contact with the authors to clarify the missing details. We classified both studies as having an overall high risk of bias.

One study compared glycerol suppository with the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) approaches of tuina massage and acupuncture. Compared to tuina massage, glycerol laxative was less effective in relieving constipation at both two days after treatment (1 RCT; N = 120; RR 2.88, 95% CI 1.89 to 4.39; very low-quality evidence), and three days (1 RCT; N = 120; RR 4.80, CI 1.96 to 11.74, very low-quality evidence). Favourable results were also seen for acupuncture at two days (1 RCT; N = 120; RR 3.50; 95% CI 2.18 to 5.62; very low-quality evidence), and at three days (1 RCT; N = 120; RR 8.00, 95% CI 2.54 to 25.16; very low-quality evidence).

The other study compared mannitol, an osmotic laxative, with rhubarb soda or phenolphthalein. Mannitol was more effective than rhubarb soda or phenolphthalein in trelieving constipation within 24 hours of treatment (1 RCT; N = 240; RR 0.07; 95% CI 0.02 to 0.27, very low-quality evidence).

No data were reported for our other important outcomes: need for rescue medication, bowel obstruction (a complication of antipsychotic-related constipation), quality of life, adverse events, leaving the study early, and economic costs.