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Signs You Need to Talk to a Doctor About Constipation

Constipation that lasts several weeks or longer can be a sign of a medical condition that requires treatment.

Signs You Need to Talk to a Doctor About Constipation

People describe constipation in different ways—everyone’s bowel habits are different, and everyone has their own sense of what is normal. Medically speaking, constipation is defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. People who are constipated may have bowel movements that are hard, dry, lumpy, difficult to pass, and/or painful to pass. People who are constipated may also feel as though their bowels are blocked, or that they need to have a bowel movement shortly after having had a bowel movement.

Causes of constipation
Constipation is the result of waste moving too slowly through the digestive system or the body being unable to eliminate solid waste in a normal capacity. It can have many causes, including:

  • Diet and lifestyle.
  • Side effects from medication.
  • Nerve signaling problems caused by other health conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
  • Disease and disorders that cause blockage or obstruction to the intestines, such as intestinal strictures, impacted stool, or tumors.
  • Problems with pelvic musculature, such as weakened pelvic muscles and problems relaxing and contracting pelvic muscles.

In many other cases, constipation has no identifiable cause, as is the case with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) and chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC). Both conditions are characterized by long-term constipation symptoms like those described above. They differ in diagnostic criteria—generally, abdominal pain is a primary symptom of IBS-C and a secondary symptom of CIC—though some healthcare providers consider both to be part of the same continuum of GI disorders.

When to see a doctor
In many instances, constipation is temporary, resolving on its own, or with changes to diet, water consumption, exercise, over-the-counter treatments, or other remedies. In other instances, constipation is a sign of a health condition that requires treatment from a healthcare provider. If you’ve been having fewer than three bowel movements a week, having difficulty passing stools, have been passing hard or lumpy stools, or feel that you are blocked or unable to completely empty your bowels, talk to your healthcare provider.

In some cases, constipation can be a sign of a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. See a healthcare provider right away if:

  • If there is blood in the stool or bleeding from the rectum. Blood in stool is described as looking “black and tarry.” Bleeding from the colon or rectum can be bright red.
  • If you are experiencing constant and/or severe abdominal pain.
  • If the abdomen becomes bloated, distended, and rigid.
  • If constipation is accompanied by vomiting, fever, back pain, an inability to pass gas, fainting or confusion, difficulty breathing, and/or rapid heart rate.
  • If you are losing weight for no apparent reason.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

Sources:
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Definition & Facts for Constipation."
MedlinePlus. "Constipation."
UpToDate. "Patient education: Constipation in adults (Beyond the Basics)."
Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Constipation: Causes and Prevention Tips."
Harvard Health Publishing. "Common causes of constipation."
American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. "Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Constipation (IBS-C)."
Ada. "Chronic Idiopathic Constipation."
Canada Online Health. "Chronic Idiopathic Constipation (CIC) Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment."
Brooks D. Cash. "Understanding and Managing IBS and CIC in the Primary Care Setting." Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 2018. Vol. 14, No. 5.
Medical News Today. "What to know about constipation."
MedlinePlus. "Black or tarry stools."
National Institute on Aging. "Concerned About Constipation?"
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Symptoms & Causes of Constipation."

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