Robert Burakoff, MD, MPH, is board-certified in gastroentrology. He is the vice chair for ambulatory services for the department of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
Constipation is generally defined as bowel movements that occur less than two or three times per week. It’s a condition everyone is likely to experience at some point or another. Common symptoms include stools that are small and hard to pass, as well as abdominal discomfort.
Constipation can be caused by lifestyle factors, medications, or a variety of medical conditions. Most cases are improved with lifestyle changes, such as in diet, exercise, and bowel habits. In other cases, laxatives or other treatments may be needed. However, chronic constipation is worth bringing to the attention of your doctor: it may be a sign of a more serious condition.
Constipation can be treated with fiber supplements, probiotics, laxatives, enemas, and prescription medications. The best way to avoid constipation is to consume a diet high in fiber. For fast relief, take an over-the-counter laxative. You can also try consuming a meal or snack of high-fiber foods, such as fruit, vegetables, beans, or drinking tea containing anise or fennel.
There are several common causes of constipation. The most likely include diet and medication use. Other possible causes include not consuming enough water, ignoring urges to use the bathroom, stress, changes in your normal routine, travel, and being sedentary.
Chronic constipation can lead to fecal impaction and incontinence. In severe cases, fecal impaction can cause stercoral ulcerations (rectal ulcers), intestinal obstruction, or bowel perforation. If left untreated, these complications can be life-threatening. If you experience blood in your stool, constant pain, vomiting, fever, or other concerning symptoms, seek immediate medical treatment.
Constipation is one of the early symptoms of pregnancy, and it may also continue during pregnancy. When a woman is pregnant, their body produces increased levels of the hormone progesterone, which can slow digestion and, in turn, cause constipation.
The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary bodily functions such as digestion and breathing. Damage to the nerves in this system is called autonomic neuropathy, which can have a variety of causes, including diabetes, heavy alcohol use, nutritional deficiencies, or toxic exposures. Constipation is a common symptom of autonomic neuropathy.
When a section of the small or large intestine becomes partially or completely blocked, bowel obstruction occurs. It is caused by a number of conditions, including a hernia or an intestinal mass. Symptoms may be serious or life-threatening and include constipation and vomiting.
Chronic constipation is characterized by symptoms that include feelings of incomplete evacuation, straining, hard stools, sensations of blockage or obstruction in the anus or rectum area, and manual efforts to enable the passage of stool. Additional symptoms include having less than three bowel movements per week and the rare occurrence of loose stools without the use of a laxative.
Fiber, which is found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, and grains, comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. Both have significant health benefits. Fiber softens and adds bulk to the stool, which makes elimination easier and helps keep the colon healthy. Some disorders—like constipation, and irregularity—may be associated with inadequate fiber intake.