Constipation After Surgery: Tips for Relief

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on September 12, 2023
3 min read

Constipation is a side effect of surgery that you may not have expected. It’s common, even if your bowel movements were regular before your operation.

It can happen for many reasons, including:

Side effects from meds: The anesthesia you get before surgery and the prescriptions you fill afterward (including pain medications, diuretics, and muscle relaxants) could be the problem.

Your diet changed: Your doctor might have told you not to eat or drink in the hours leading up to the surgery, or put you on a restrictive diet after the operation. The combination of too little fluid and food can affect your bowel movements, making you more likely to become constipated.

You can’t exercise yet: If you need to stay in a hospital bed or can’t work out for a while as you recover, that lack of movement can slow down your digestion and make it harder to pass stool. Inactivity is a common cause of constipation.

The problem may not last long, and you can take steps to get your system moving again.

Drink more. Dehydration makes constipation more likely. Water helps break down the food in your stomach, assisting with digestion. Research shows that downing at least four glasses of water per day can help prevent constipation.

Avoid caffeine. It’s dehydrating, which can make matters worse. So you may need to halt the coffee, tea, and caffeinated soda (plus chocolate) for now.

Add fiber. It helps you pass stools and stay regular. Most adults should get between 22 and 34 grams of fiber per day. Foods such as bran, beans, apples, pears, prunes, squash, sweet potatoes, spinach, and collard greens are good sources of fiber. If you don’t have much of an appetite after surgery, try a smoothie made with fruits and vegetables.

Get moving. As soon as your doctor says it’s OK, get up and move around as much as possible. Even a short walk down the hospital hallway will help. Exercise helps move digested food through your intestines and signals your body that it’s time for a bowel movement.

Consider medications. Your doctor may recommend stool softeners, which make stool easier to pass, or laxatives, which pull water into your intestines and help stool move along the intestinal tract.

If laxatives and stool softeners don’t do the trick, suppositories may help. You insert them into your rectum to soften stool and trigger your intestinal muscles to squeeze, making it easier to pass stool. Both prescription and over-the-counter options are available.

Ask about dietary supplements. Some, including fiber, kefir, and carnitine, may help ease constipation. Other supplements, such as iron, can make constipation worse. Talk to your doctor before you start to take any dietary supplements, to make sure they’re OK for you.