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Constipation is a very common complaint but, in the absence of a universally accepted definition, misunderstandings may result between doctor and patient. Two hundred and eighty-seven patients attending this hospital completed a questionnaire which attempted to establish what patients themselves mean by the term. Almost half considered constipation purely in terms of frequency of bowel action, without considering difficulty or pain on defaecation. Women were more likely to have infrequent bowel actions than men, and men more likely to consider such infrequency harmful. A quarter of respondents believed in the benefits of regular purgation, surprisingly with no difference in attitude between age groups, but men were much less likely to have heeded their own advice.