When Is a Bowel Movement Normal or Abnormal?

Knowing When It Is Time to See a Doctor

What does it mean to have a normal bowel movement? Many people aren't sure if their bowel movements are "normal," which is probably because bowel movements are a difficult topic to discuss, even with a physician.

The truth is that there is no one complete definition or description of a normal bowel movement. Bowel movements are individual, and rather than one "normal" type of bowel movement that fits everyone, there is a spectrum of what would be considered in the range of normal. Instead, be on the lookout for any signs that a bowel movement is outside the personal range of normal, or that bowel movements have changed over time, and bring that up at a doctor's visit.

What a Normal Bowel Movement Means

It's a common belief that having a normal digestive system means having a daily bowel movement. However, this is not true for everyone. In fact, normal could be anything from having a bowel movement a few times a day to a few times a week. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule as to what is typical because it varies from person to person.

When defining constipation or diarrhea, the general range is from three times a day to three times a week. Less than three movements per week is generally considered constipation, while three or more loose stools per day is considered diarrhea.

If you do not have a daily bowel movement, it does not mean you are constipated. Having more than one movement a day does not mean that you have diarrhea. Constipation is hard, dry stool that is difficult to pass, and diarrhea is watery stool more than three times a day.

Most healthy adults will experience diarrhea or constipation at some point, but a consistent change in bowel habits should always be discussed with your doctor.

Causes of Constipation

Constipation is a common problem and is estimated to be the cause of about 2 million doctor visits each year. Constipation is hard, dry, lumpy stool that is difficult or painful to pass and which may be accompanied by bloating and discomfort. Chronic dehydration, lack of exercise, and low amounts of dietary fiber can all lead to developing constipation.

Drinking enough water each day can help prevent dehydration. At least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week is recommended for better overall health (even brisk walking is better than no aerobic activity) as well as better digestion. There should be enough fiber in the diet to ensure that stools are soft and pass painlessly and easily.

You should see a doctor about constipation if you are outside of your normal range of bowel movements for more than a week, are in pain, or find blood on the toilet paper. This is especially true if you are over 50.

Complications

Women and older adults are especially at risk for having constipation that occurs frequently, which is called chronic constipation. Unfortunately, more than just being uncomfortable, chronic constipation could lead to other complications. Straining to pass stool could lead to the development of hemorrhoids or an anal fissure (a tear in the skin of the anal canal).

Another potential issue is fecal impaction, which is when stool becomes hardened and gets stuck in the intestine and won't move. This could require treatment in a hospital or a doctor's office if it gets severe. 

Rectal prolapse, where part of the rectum can come out of the anus, can also occur after straining too hard to pass a bowel movement. A rectal prolapse could be treated at home, but may require surgery in some cases.

Causes of Diarrhea

Diarrhea is loose, watery stool that occurs more than 3 times in a day. For most adults, diarrhea is a common problem that happens a few times a year, usually lasts a day or two, and does not need any treatment. Causes of diarrhea include infection, side effects of medication, and food intolerance.

You need to see a doctor if the diarrhea lasts more than three days, especially if it there is pain, fever, bloody or black stools, or a pus discharge. Prolonged diarrhea can cause severe dehydration requiring emergency care.

Evaluating Your Stools

A bowel movement should be soft and easy to pass, though some people may have somewhat harder or softer stools than others. Generally speaking, a stool should be brown or golden brown, be cohesively formed, have a texture similar to peanut butter, and a size and shape similar to a sausage.

In many cases, a stool that varies a bit from this description is no cause for alarm, especially if it is an isolated incident. There are, however, several indications that a bowel movement is abnormal and may be the sign of a more serious problem.

Among them:

A Word From Verywell

If there's one thing that causes almost everyone anxiety about seeing a doctor, it's bowel movements. Many people keep their concerns about their bowel movements to themselves, but that could be a mistake.

A digestive problem is easier to deal with if caught early, rather than letting it go until it becomes more difficult to treat. Many digestive problems can be managed with changes to lifestyle like eating more fiber, drinking water, or going for a walk, so make sure to bring any up at a doctor's visit.

When to Worry If Your Stool Looks Strange
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