Symptoms of Constipation

Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

In This Article

Constipated woman standing next to a toilet

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Constipation occurs when a person does not have a bowel movement within 24 to 72 hours after they've eaten, or when a person strains to have a bowel movement. It is a condition, not a disease, and is often defined as having less than three bowels movements per week. People can occasionally experience constipation due to a variety of reasons, such as a change in diet, traveling, medications, and pregnancy.

Most of the time, constipation can be treated with self-care and is not serious. But, sometimes, chronic constipation occurs, impacting daily life. This can be especially problematic in children because it can affect their behavior, and therefore finding the cause is important.

Frequent Symptoms

Everyone's normal bowel routine is different. Some people have a bowel movement after each meal, while others every few days. Constipation is common condition and can occur on occasion in anyone due to a variety of reasons.

Although symptoms of constipation are not the same for everyone, below is a list of the most common:

  • Fewer than three bowel movements a week
  • Hard, dry, or lumpy stools
  • Straining when using the bathroom
  • Taking a long time to pass stools
  • Feeling like you have not passed all your stool
  • Distention (bloating) of the belly
  • Traces of liquid or clay-like stool in your child's underwear—this can be a sign that the stool is backed up in the rectum
  • Blood on the surface of hard stool
  • Fussiness and crying in infants in children
  • Decreased appetite in infants and children
  • Other odd behaviors in infants and children

Children who are withholding because they are not ready to toilet train or are afraid of being in pain may cross their legs, clench their buttocks, or make faces when holding stool.

Rare Symptoms

Sometimes people present with more rare symptoms of constipation. These include:

  • Nausea: A buildup of stool in your intestinal tract can cause nausea. This usually happens when there has been a build-up over time and is often a result of fecal impaction. Fecal impaction is a complication of constipation that should be evaluated by a medical doctor.
  • Vomiting: Vomiting can occur when there is an intestinal obstruction. Intestinal obstructions occur when a section of the small or large intestine becomes partially or completely blocked. Symptoms include abdominal pain, fevers, constipation, and vomiting. This can be a very serious condition.

If these symptoms occur along with constipation, you should contact your physician.

Complications

Short term constipation typically does not cause complications and can usually be treated with self-care. For example, if you are simply constipated due to a change in your diet, you may feel full, bloated, or comfortable, but will not have any long-term complications. However chronic constipation can cause complications.

Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are swollen and inflamed veins in the rectum or anus. They can occur inside or outside and are usually not serious.

External hemorrhoids may cause itchiness or pain when having a bowel movement. Internal hemorrhoids typically do not cause pain and, instead, you may see bright red-streaked stool in the toilet.

Anal Fissures

Anal fissures are usually the result of some form of trauma to the anus, like hard stool. Anal fissures are usually painful and may also cause itching. You may also notice blood on the toilet tissue or on the stool.

Rectal Prolapse

Rectal prolapse occurs when the last portion of your colon, the rectum, protrudes beyond the anus and is visible on the outside of your body. It isn't necessarily painful, and in many cases will go away without treatment. It should be evaluated by your doctor, though.

Fecal Impaction

Fecal impaction (FI) is a state of prolonged constipation. It occurs when the stool is so hard that it cannot pass with a normal bowel movement. It can cause abdominal pain and cramping, among other symptoms. It often must be treated with medications or procedures such as enemas or water irrigation.

Complications in Children

In children, specifically, those who are avoiding bowel movements because of pain, they may have stool collected in the colon and rectum. Sometimes, it will leak out, a condition that is referred to as encopresis(soiling).

Complications in the Elderly

It is reported that the prevalence of constipation increases with age, especially those over the age of 65 years.

Researchers state that chronic constipation can lead to fecal impaction and fecal incontinence. They state that in severe cases, fecal impaction can cause stercoral ulcerations, intestinal obstruction, or bowel perforation. If left untreated, these complications can be life-threatening.

Older people can also experience a lower quality of life due to complications and discomfort from constipation.

When to See a Doctor

According to the National Institutes of Health, you should see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • A history of colon cancer or rectal cancer
  • Bleeding from your rectum
  • Blood in your stool
  • Constant pain in your abdomen
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Lower back pain
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Self-care remedies do not work
  • If you are worried that your constipation is a result of a more serious condition

Children should see a doctor if they have constipation with any of the above symptoms. In rare instances, constipation in children may be a result of a food allergy or a medical condition in which case they will need to receive a medical work-up to determine the cause.

In any case, if you can't figure out a reason as to why there is a change in your normal bowel routine or if self-care has been unsuccessful in treating your constipation, contact your doctor.

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Article Sources

  1. Rao SSC, Go JT. Update on the management of constipation in the elderly: new treatment options. Clin Interv Aging. 2010;5:163–171.

  2. Concerned about constipation? National Institute of Aging. National Institutes of Health. Published December 1, 2013.

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