What Is Constipation?

Being constipated means your bowel movements are tough or happen less often than normal. Almost everyone goes through it sooner or later.

Although it’s not usually serious, you'll feel much better when your body is back on track.

The normal length of time between bowel movements varies widely from person to person. Some people have them three times a day. Others have them only once or twice a week.

Going longer than 3 or more days without one, though, is usually too long. After 3 days, the stool or feces become harder and more difficult to pass.

What Are the Symptoms?

You may have:

  • Few bowel movements
  • Trouble having a bowel movement (straining to go)
  • Hard or small stools
  • A sense that everything didn’t come out
  • Swollen belly or belly pain
  • Throwing up

Why Does It Happen?

Some causes of constipation include:

  • Antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
  • Changes in your usual diet or activities
  • Colon cancer
  • Eating a lot of dairy products
  • Eating disorders
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis
  • Not being active
  • Not enough water or fiber in your diet
  • Overuse of laxatives
  • Pregnancy
  • Problems with the nerves and muscles in the digestive system
  • Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement, which some people do because of hemorrhoids
  • Some medications (especially strong pain drugs such as narcotics, antidepressants, or iron pills)
  • Stress
  • Underactive thyroid (called hypothyroidism)

What Should I Do If I Am Constipated?

Take these steps:

  • Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day, unless your doctor told you to limit fluids for another reason.
  • Try warm liquids, especially in the morning.
  • Add fruits and vegetables to your diet.
  • Eat prunes and bran cereal.
  • If needed, use a very mild over-the-counter stool softener like docusate or a laxative like magnesium hydroxide. Don’t use laxatives for more than 2 weeks without calling your doctor. If you overdo it, your symptoms may get worse.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor right away if you have sudden constipation with belly pain or cramping and you aren’t able to pass any gas or stool.

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Also, make the call if:

  • Constipation is a new problem for you.
  • You have blood in your stool.
  • You are losing weight even though you are not dieting.
  • You have severe pain with bowel movements.
  • Your constipation has lasted more than 2 weeks.
  • You have pencil-thin stools.

Your doctor may recommend these tests to find the cause of your constipation:

  • Blood tests to check on hormone levels
  • Barium studies to look for any blockages in your colon
  • Colonoscopy to look for blockages in your colon

Can I Prevent Constipation?

In many cases, you can. These things can help:

Eat a well- balanced diet with plenty of fiber. Good sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereal (especially bran).

Drink 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of water and other fluids a day (unless your doctor has you on a fluid-restricted diet). Fiber and water work together to keep you regular.

Avoid caffeine . It can be dehydrating.

Cut back on milk. Some people may need to avoid it because dairy products may be constipating for them.

Exercise regularly. Do something active for at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.

Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on October 06, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

National Institutes of Health.

American Academy of Family Physicians.

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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