The normal length of time between bowel movements varies widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements three times a day. Others have them only once or twice a week.
Going longer than three or more days without a bowel movement, though, is usually too long. After three 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)
Hard or small stools
A sense that everything didn’t come out
Swollen abdomen or abdominal pain
Why Does It Happen?
Some causes of constipation include:
Antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
Changes in your usual diet or activities
Eating a lot of dairy products.
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 (Over time, this weakens the bowel muscles)
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)
Under active thyroid (hypothyroidism)
How Do Doctors Diagnose It?
If you have trouble with your bowel movements for more than two weeks, you should see your doctor. He or she may ask for 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
What Should I Do If I Am Constipated?
Try these steps:
Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day (unless your doctor told you to limit fluids for another health 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 (Peri-Colace) or a laxative like magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia). Do not use laxatives for more than two weeks without calling your doctor. Laxative overuse can worsen your symptoms.