The Facts About Constipation

Signs that things are too slow, tips on how to get them moving, and when to call the doctor

Medically reviewed in January 2022

Most people experience constipation at some point in their lives. And when they do, they either suffer silently or take steps to alleviate their discomfort.

So when things slow down, what do you do? If you wait it out, you're suffering needlessly. Read on to find out which self-care strategies can bring you quick relief, and which symptoms signal it's time to take your problem to the doctor.

How often do you go?
If you don't have one bowel movement a day, something's wrong—right? Many people think this is the definition of constipation, but the range of what constitutes "normal" bowel function is much wider than this.

Having just three bowel movements a week is normal for some people—but for other people, two or three bowel movements a day might be normal. Everyone is different. In fact, many health experts don't consider it constipation unless bowel movements slow to fewer than three per week. And those eliminations would likely be hard, dry, small, and difficult to pass.

Here's a list of symptoms that may signal constipation:

  • Fewer than three bowel movements per week
  • Hard, dry, small stool
  • Difficulty passing stool
  • Straining to pass stool
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Headache
  • Impaired appetite
  • Bad taste in your mouth
  • Nausea
  • Feelings of sluggishness

Should you be worried?
If you have symptoms of constipation and are concerned about it, take heart. Constipation is rarely the result of serious illness and usually carries no long-term health risks if it's remedied appropriately. On the other hand, don't ignore constipation. If it isn't remedied, constipation could lead to some unpleasant complications, such as hemorrhoids, anal fissures, or fecal impaction.

In some cases, constipation can be resolved with a little more focus on what you're eating and how much you're exercising.

  • Diet: Often, people become constipated when they don't get enough fiber or water in their diets. To counter this, include more high-fiber whole grains, fruit, veggies, and beans in your diet. Aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day to help keep your gastrointestinal system running smoothly. Fiber may aid constipation because it helps hold water in the stool. Also, up your intake of water and foods high in water content, such as watermelon, tomatoes, and cucumbers, to help the fiber do its job. Dehydration leads to constipation because the body attempts to gain needed water by drawing too much water out of the stool. Finally, it may help to go easy on cheese, meat, and other foods that are low in fiber.
  • Exercise: Studies show a higher incidence of constipation in people who don't exercise enough, so if your intestines feel slow, concentrate on getting the recommended 30 minutes a day most days of the week.

Also, certain medications can interfere with bowel function. If you are taking one of the medications below and are dealing with constipation, check with your healthcare provider to see what you can do to get relief.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin

  • Antacids containing aluminum hydroxide and calcium carbonate
  • Antidepressants
  • Iron tablets
  • Anticonvulsant drugs
  • Opioid analgesics
  • Narcotic-containing drugs

A more serious side
Even though poor diet and a lack of exercise are two of the most common culprits when it comes to constipation, sometimes an underlying medical cause exists that may require attention. So if you are eating enough fiber and exercising regularly, and you're not taking any medications that cause constipation, see your doctor to help determine what may be causing your symptoms. Here are a few examples of medical conditions that may have constipation as a symptom:

When a cause cannot be found
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you may still struggle to get regular. If your constipation is chronic, and your doctor is unable to point to any underlying medical cause for your symptoms, you may have chronic idiopathic constipation, also known as chronic constipation (CC) or functional constipation. This condition is characterized by constipation symptoms that last for more than 6 months, don't respond to the usual self-care strategies, and aren't associated with a particular disease or medical condition. If you have CC, work with your healthcare provider to get relief.

When to call the doctor
Call your doctor if constipation has lasted for more than 3 weeks, if you suffer from frequent bouts of constipation, if you have constipation alternating with diarrhea, if your constipation is associated with abdominal pain or bloating, or if your constipation is in any way interfering with your quality of life.

You should also call your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Blood in your stool; dark, tarry-looking stools
  • Pain during or after bowel movements
  • Constipation accompanied by unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Frequent constipation after years of normal bowel movements

Sweet relief
Constipation can be very uncomfortable. But with exercise and a good diet, a bout of constipation could be short-lived. For longer, more persistent problems with constipation, you and your doctor will likely find a treatment that gets you back to normal again—whatever normal is for you!

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