Constipation is a digestive problem familiar to many.
It’s defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. You may also be straining or taking a long time in the bathroom because your stool is too hard, dry, or lumpy to pass.
When you’re constipated, the waste in your digestive system moves slowly and can’t exit easily from your body, leading to discomfort. You may also feel like there’s blockage and that your bowels aren’t empty even after you use the toilet.
Constipation usually goes away after a short time as most people can treat it at home. But in some instances, constipation can be severe and long lasting, in which case you need to see your doctor.
The first step for treating constipation starts with your daily habits:
Eat more fiber: Add more fresh fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich foods into your diet. Whole-grain cereals, beans, prunes, and bran are excellent sources of fiber. These foods increase the weight of your stool, helping it pass through your intestines.
Limit items that have no fiber such as ice cream, cheeses, meats, and other types of processed food. Depending on your age and sex, adults should try to get 22 to 34 grams of fiber a day.
Drink more water: More liquids can help with regular bowel movements. Without enough fluids, the constipation can get worse.
Exercise more: Staying active helps muscles in your intestines, making it easier for the stool to move. This could be as simple as taking three short walks a week.
Don’t ignore when nature calls: Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge. Ignoring your body’s signals can make them weaker.
Set a habit: Try to have a bowel movement at the same time each day so your habits become more regular. Some people find that it’s easier to go after a meal, as eating helps your intestine move the stool.
When to Get Help
If you have added fiber and exercise into your daily routine, but don’t see any changes, you should call your doctor.
You should seek care when you have:
- Constipation lasting longer than 3 weeks
- Severe symptoms
- Blood on your toilet paper or in your stool
- Weight loss, fevers, or weakness
- Stomach pains
- A change in your bowel habits
If you’re still constipated after making lifestyle changes, your doctor may suggest some other remedies:
Laxatives help to empty your bowels. Although laxatives are available over the counter, you should use them as directed by your doctor because your body can get dependent on them. Also, overusing laxatives can cause diarrhea.
Laxatives come in liquid, tablet, gum, capsule, granule, or powder forms.
Fiber supplements make your stool bulkier so it’s easier to pass. Be aware that these supplements can also cause bloating. Examples include psyllium (Metamucil, Konsyl), calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon), methylcellulose fiber (Citrucel).
Osmotic agents help your stool retain fluid so it’s easier for it to pass out of your body. These drugs can cause dehydration or mineral imbalance, and should be taken with caution by people who are older, or have heart or kidney failure. Examples include oral magnesium hydroxide (Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia), magnesium citrate, lactulose (Kristalose), and polyethylene glycol (Miralax).
Stool softeners keep the stool soft by drawing water from the intestines. Doctors usually suggest stool softeners for people who shouldn’t strain while using the bathroom, especially if you’ve just had surgery or given birth. Examples include docusate sodium (Colace) and docusate calcium (Surfak).
Lubricants coat the stool, making it easier for it to pass through. These are usually suggested for people with blockage in the anus or rectum.
Stimulant laxatives cause the intestine to contract, moving the stool. Your doctor may recommend these if your constipation is severe and other treatments haven’t worked. They can cause side effects such as low potassium levels. Examples include senna (Senokot, Ex-Lax) and bisacodyl (Correctol, Dulcolax, Dacodyl).
Suppositories and enemas are laxatives that you put into your rectum, such as soapsuds, tap water, or enema kits that contain sodium phosphate/biphosphate (Fleet). Although they work faster than oral drugs, most people don’t like using them. It’s not advised if you have heart or kidney problems.
Your doctor will likely advise you to stop taking laxatives once your stools are soft and you’re able to go to the bathroom easily.
If you’ve been taking laxatives for a while and can’t have a bowel movement without using them, you should speak with your doctor.
More severe cases of constipation may need prescription drugs, biofeedback training (a way to retrain your muscles for people who squeeze, rather than relax, when going to the bathroom), or even surgery. But these treatments require further discussions with your doctor.