How is constipation treated?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

If you develop a mild form of constipation, it is usually temporary and doesn't lead to complications. If, however, you develop chronic constipation or take medications that cause your constipation, you may need to change your daily habits to prevent constipation or alleviate the symptoms. This usually involves a high-fiber diet, avoiding foods that lack fiber, adequate fluids, and regular exercise-experts recommend about 30 minutes a day. You may also need to take fiber supplements daily, which should be taken with large amounts of water in order to be effective. Talk to your doctor about your daily treatment options for constipation.

For some, new onset constipation or bowel changes can be signs of something more serious. If you experience these changes, consult your doctor.

There are a number of ways to treat constipation. First, try drinking more water and increase your fiber intake with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Also, a regular exercise routine can help get things moving. If those things don’t work, you can also trystool softeners with docusate sodium or bulking agents, like psyllium. A third option would be to try laxatives or suppositories.

Candidly discussing your constipation symptoms with your healthcare provider can help determine how best to manage and treat your condition. This may include dietary and lifestyle changes or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to treat occasional constipation. However, they are not intended for long-term treatment of constipation without the oversight of a doctor. Prescription medications are available for the treatment of chronic constipation.

In the midst of your busy life, are you finding time to drink the recommended six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day? Do you eat enough dietary fiber -- at least 25 grams (g) per day for women age 50 and younger and 21 g per day for women age 51 and older? If not, try boosting your intake of these natural bowel regulators. Good sources of dietary fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.

Over-the-counter medications such as laxatives and stool softeners are approved for occasional constipation. These products may temporarily alleviate constipation, but they are not approved for the treatment of chronic constipation.

If your constipation symptoms keep coming back, you may have more than occasional constipation. You may have a form of chronic constipation. If you suffer from constipation symptoms, you should consider making an appointment to see your healthcare provider to talk about it.

The more details you give your healthcare provider about your bowel habits, including bloating and any abdominal pain or discomfort, the better he or she will be able to identify the possible cause of your symptoms and manage your condition. Prescription medications are available for the treatment of chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC) and irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C).

Granted it's not fun to talk about your bowel habits with your healthcare provider. Keep in mind that healthcare professionals talk about poop and other bodily functions all day long, so don’t be embarrassed to bring it up.

Dr. Brooke H. Gurland, MD
Colorectal Surgeon

Here are some ways that you can relieve constipation:

  • Increase the amount of fiber in your diet. Good sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Five to ten servings of fruits and vegetables are recommended each day. Fiber supplements might be helpful - examples include Metamucil® and Citrucel®.
  • Sparingly use over-the-counter laxatives or stool softeners. Stool softeners such as Colace® are relatively safe, but prolonged use of osmotic or stimulant laxatives might not be.
  • Exercise regularly. Even walking regularly helps improve the normal flow of material through the intestine.
  • Empty the bowels when you feel the urge to do so. Immediately following a meal,the body will have a natural urge to defecate. That's a good time to plan a visit to the bathroom.
Dr. Lawrence S. Friedman, MD

Under most circumstances, laxatives should be used only when dietary and behavioral measures fail. Stimulant laxatives act directly on the intestine to elicit more vigorous contractions of the colon and increase secretion of water in the intestine.

  • Suppositories. Suppositories have been used to aid evacuation since the days of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Glycerin suppositories are made of about 70% glycerin, sometimes with sodium stearate (a fatty acid) added. When inserted, a glycerin suppository stimulates the reflex to defecate, in part because of its lubricating action. Suppositories with bisacodyl (Dulcolax) are more potent and usually produce a bowel movement within 20 minutes.
  • Enemas. The simple tap water enema distends the rectum, mimicking its natural distension by the stool and prompts the reflex by which the rectum empties itself as the sphincters open. While it isn't ideal to rely on artificial stimulation to kick off evacuation, occasional use can be safe and effective. Sodium phosphate (Fleet) enemas are available in single-dose plastic containers. These salts draw fluid into the bowel, prompting contraction. Oil-containing enemas are sometimes prescribed as softeners for feces that have become hardened within the rectum. They are generally recommended for short-term use only. Avoid soapsuds enemas, which can irritate the lining of the colon.
  • Chloride-channel agonists. One prescription drug Food and Drug Administration -approved to treat functional constipation is lubiprostone (Amitiza). This chloride-channel agonist increases the secretion of fluid into the intestine, which eases the passage of stool through this area. Lubiprostone may be a good option for people who are not helped by standard treatments. Nausea was a common side effect in clinical trials.

A few different treatment options are available for constipation. The most effective treatment is to have regular eating patterns including foods that will create normal bowel movements. Some foods that may help encourage bowel movements include cereals, fruits, vegetables, and fats. Some foods to avoid include sugars and carbohydrates. Laxatives and enemas should also be avoided unless they are necessary and approved by a physician. If constipation is caused by nervousness or anxiety, the source of stress should be identified and managed. Visiting a counselor or psychologist may also be helpful.

This answer provided for NATA by the University of Montana Athletic Training Education Program.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.