What Is Constipation?

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

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 just a few times a week.

Going longer than 3 or more days without one, though, is usually too long. After 3 days, your poop gets 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

You also may feel like you need help to empty your bowels, such as pressing on your belly or using a finger to remove stool from your bottom.

Why Does It Happen?

Some causes of constipation include:

  • Changes to what you eat or your activities
  • Not enough water or fiber in your diet
  • Eating a lot of dairy products
  • Not being active
  • Resisting the urge to poop
  • Stress
  • Overuse of laxatives
  • Some medications (especially strong pain drugs such as narcotics, antidepressants, and iron pills)
  • Antacid medicines that have calcium or aluminum
  • Eating disorders
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Pregnancy
  • Problems with the nerves and muscles in your digestive system
  • Colon cancer
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis
  • 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.
  • Exercise most days of the week. When you move your body, the muscles in your intestines are more active, too.
  • Don’t ignore the urge to poop.

You can try taking a laxative, too. There are several types of laxatives, and you can buy many of them over the counter. Each of them works in a different way to ease constipation. Ask your doctor or pharmacist which kind might work for you and how long you should take it.

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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 poop or pass gas at all.

Also, make the call if:

  • Constipation is a new problem for you, and lifestyle changes haven’t helped.
  • You have blood in your stool.
  • You’re losing weight even though you’re not trying to.
  • You have severe pain with bowel movements.
  • Your constipation has lasted more than 2 weeks.
  • The size, shape, and consistency of your stool has changed dramatically.

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

  • Blood tests to check on hormone levels 
  • Tests that check the muscles in your anus
  • Tests that show how waste moves through and out of 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 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. Dairy products can constipate some people.

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 Neha Pathak, MD on November 13, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

National Institutes of Health.

American Academy of Family Physicians.

© 2017 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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