The Facts About Constipation

Understand when things are moving too slow, get tips on how to get them moving again, and know when to seek help.

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Updated on October 12, 2023.

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

When things slow down, what do you do? Read on to find out which strategies can bring you quick relief, and which symptoms signal it's time to take your problem to a healthcare provider (HCP).

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 in fact, the range of what constitutes "normal" bowel function is much wider.

Having just three bowel movements a week is considered normal for some people. 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.

Symptoms that may signal constipation include:

  • 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 complications, including hemorrhoids, anal fissures, or fecal impaction.

What to do about constipation

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

Consider your diet

People often 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.

Increase 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.

Keep your body moving

Studies show a higher incidence of constipation in people who don't exercise enough. If your intestines feel slow, concentrate on getting the recommended 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.

Be mindful of meds

Certain medications can interfere with bowel function. If you are taking one of the medications below and are dealing with constipation, check with your HCP 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

When conspitation points to a more serious problem

Even though poor diet and a lack of exercise are two of the most common contributors to constipation, an underlying medical cause may require attention to help resolve constipation. If you are eating enough fiber and water and exercising regularly, and you're not taking any medications that may cause constipation, see your HCP to help determine what may be causing your symptoms.

Some of the medical conditions that may contribute to constipation include the following:

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 HCP 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 HCP to get relief.

When to call your provider

Call your HCP in these cases:

  • Your constipation has lasted for more than 3 weeks
  • You experience frequent bouts of constipation
  • You have constipation alternating with diarrhea
  • Your constipation is associated with abdominal pain or bloating
  • Your constipation is in any way interfering with your quality of life

You should also seek medical help if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Blood in your stool or 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

Finding relief

Constipation can be 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 HCP will likely find a treatment that gets you back to normal again—whatever normal is for you.

Article sources open article sources

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Constipation. Last Reviewed May 2018.
Cleveland Clinic. Constipation. Last reviewed July 18, 2023.

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