Key Points about Constipation
- Constipation occurs when your bowel movements are challenging or happen less frequently than normal.
- Constipation can have a range of causes, from diet and lifestyle factors to existing medical conditions.
- Most instances of constipation can be relieved and prevented through moderate diet and activity changes, although some serious cases may need the advice of a physician.
Constipation is one of the most common digestive complaints. Symptoms of constipation include having bowel movements that are challenging or less frequent than normal, or the inability to have a bowel movement altogether. Constipation can be caused by diet and lifestyle factors, by some medications, or by underlying medical conditions such as IBS, celiac disease, or colon cancer.
Most cases of constipation can be treated at home through diet and lifestyle modifications. For serious or persistent cases of constipation, set up an appointment with your physician to determine the underlying cause of constipation, and to help regulate bowel movements.
There is a wide range of possible causes of constipation. Some lifestyle factors leading to constipation include:
- Changes to your diet
- A diet low in water or fiber
- A diet high in dairy products
- Low levels of physical activity
- Resisting the urge to pass stool for too long
- Overusing laxatives
- Taking medications such as antidepressants or narcotics
- Taking an iron supplement, or an antacid that contains calcium or aluminum
Constipation can also result from existing medical conditions such as:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Colon cancer
- Neurological conditions that affect the nerves and muscles in your digestive system, or your whole body
Constipation risk factors
Risk factors for constipation include being affected by any of the potential causes above, as well as:
- Older age
- Being a woman
- Having a mental health condition, including depression or an eating disorder
Symptoms of constipation include:
- Infrequent bowel movements
- Trouble or straining to make a bowel movement
- Hard or small stools
- Belly bloating
- A feeling that not everything came out
Complications may result from come cases of constipation:
- Hemorrhoids — Straining to have a bowel movement may cause veins in and around the anus to swell.
- Anal fissure — A large or hard stool can create small tears in the anus.
- Fecal impaction — Long-term constipation can cause hardened stool to accumulate when it cannot be expelled, which then remains stuck in the intestines.
- Rectal prolapse — Straining during a bowel movement can also cause a small amount of the intestinal lining to stretch and protrude from the anus.
Most instances of constipation can be prevented through the following measures:
- Eating a balanced diet high in fiber
- Drinking lots of water
- Avoiding caffeine, which can be dehydrating
- Cutting back on dairy products
- Exercising regularly
- Not resisting the urge to go to the bathroom
For serious cases of constipation, your doctor may give the following tests to identify the underlying cause:
- Blood tests to assess hormone levels
- Tests that assess the muscles in the anus
- Colonoscopy to look for blockages in your colon
If you are experiencing constipation, you should:
- Drink two to four extra glasses of water each day
- Drink warm liquids, especially in the mornings
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Add prunes, prune juice, and bran cereal to your diet
- Exercise regularly to activate the muscles in your intestines
- Not ignore the urge to use the bathroom
For more serious cases, your doctor may recommend additional treatments to relieve constipation.
When to seek care
Contact your doctor if you:
- Have never experienced constipation before, and lifestyle changes have no effect
- Have bloody stool
- Are losing weight unintentionally
- Have intense pain during bowel movements
- Have had constipation for more than two weeks
- Have noticed dramatic changes in the size, shape, and consistency of your stool
Following preventative measures above should minimize future instances of constipation. For constipation related to ongoing medical conditions or prescription medications, doctors may recommend additional measures to promote regular bowel movements.