How Constipation Is Treated

Constipation is a common problem for children and adults. In many cases, the treatment for uncomplicated constipation includes changes to diet, lifestyle, and bowel habits. Trying one or two changes may help in bringing some relief without using enemas or laxatives (which can be habit forming). Talk to your doctor if your constipation doesn't respond to anything, or if you have severe pain and bloating.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

The first line of treatment for constipation is to make changes in your diet and lifestyle.

Act on the Urge to Defecate

Ignoring the urge "to go" can lead to constipation. Instead, make time each day to have a bowel movement. Some people find it easier in the morning, while others may discover that later in the day, such as after dinner, may work better. Taking the time to relax and allow the bowel movement to happen naturally is optimal.

Add Exercise to Your Day

Exercising can help keep your body working properly, both inside and out. People who are bedridden or unable to move about because of disability or disease often experience constipation. If you are able, getting regular exercise, even a daily walk, can help keep your bowels moving properly.

Add Fiber to Your Diet

In Western countries (such as the U.S.), the lack of fiber in the diet is a frequent contributor to the problem of constipation. Many people are unsure as to how to add more dietary fiber, or which kind of fiber would be most effective. Some foods, including prunes, figs, licorice, and rhubarb, have natural laxative properties and can be helpful in relieving constipation.

Getting fiber through the foods you eat is best, but there are many fiber supplements (see bulk-forming laxatives below) that can be taken to help treat or prevent constipation.

It's best to gradually increase the amount of fiber as a sudden, large increase in fiber can cause abdominal bloating or gas.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

OTC therapies are the next step in relieving constipation.

If you are pregnant or nursing, ask your doctor which are OTC treatments are best. For a child under age 6, always consult your pediatrician before giving laxatives. If you are on any other medications, some OTC laxatives can interfere with them, so be sure to discuss this with your doctor.

Bulk-Forming Laxatives

There are several different types of fiber supplements available commercially that can help to treat constipation. These are known as "bulk-forming" laxatives because they work to make stool soft and therefore more easily passed. These supplements can also help treat diarrhea by absorbing water and making stool more solid. Bulk-forming laxatives are not habit-forming, and most can be used every day and on a long-term basis. Your healthcare provider can help you choose the right type of fiber supplement for you.

Over-the-Counter Laxatives

There are a number of laxatives available in drugstores that can help in cases where constipation is not relieved by diet and lifestyle changes. Even though these medications can be purchased without a prescription, always check with a physician about taking a laxative. Laxatives can help in relieving constipation on a short-term basis, but they are not a long-term solution because they can be habit-forming, and even worsen constipation when used improperly.

Enemas

Enemas are used to help clean out the bowel before a diagnostic test, such as a colonoscopy, but can also help relieve constipation. An enema is a short-term solution, and not appropriate for the treatment of chronic constipation. This is because using enemas regularly can impair the colon from working properly and eventually lead to a dependency on them to have a bowel movement.

Prescriptions

Your current prescription medications, OTC medications, or supplements could be the source of your constipation. Discuss these with your doctor to see if there are substitutes that are less likely to make you constipated. Be sure to include a full list of everything you take.

If diet, lifestyle, and OTC treatments are not effective for your constipation, your doctor may turn to some prescription medications. These include:

  • Amitiza (lubiprostone) is a stool softener that increases the fluid in your digestive tract by targeting specific cells. Unfortunately, one of the most common side effects is nausea.
  • Linzess (linaclotide) or plecanatide may be prescribed if you have irritable bowel syndrome with constipation or long-lasting constipation without a known cause. They should never be taken by children under age 17 due to the risk of serious dehydration.
  • Prucalopride improves the movement of stool through your colon. It may be prescribed if you have long-lasting constipation without a known cause.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

If the stool is impacted and not relieved with an enema, your doctor may perform manual removal of the impacted stool with a gloved finger.

Surgery is rarely needed for constipation, but it can be used in certain circumstances. If your constipation is due to rectal prolapse, surgery may be performed. If constipation is due to problems with your colon muscles, your doctor may remove your colon.

Antegrade colonic enema is another surgical intervention used in rare cases. A small opening is made in the side of the abdomen and the appendix or other section of the bowel are made into a conduit to the large intestine. A stoma is created on the surface and a catheter is used to flush the bowels daily.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a type of treatment that can help treat several conditions, including constipation. During biofeedback, a person's temperature, heart rate, and muscle activity are monitored with electrodes. The information provided through this monitoring can help a person learn, through a specific targeted effort, to relax the muscles needed to have a bowel movement. The benefits of this treatment are that it is non-invasive and can work long-term. The downside is that it has not been studied extensively, it takes significant time and effort, and may be difficult to find a practitioner to administer treatment.

Bowel Retraining

In some cases, bowel retraining may be helpful in learning how to have a bowel movement that is soft and easily passed. Retraining the bowel takes time and a conscious effort. The goal is to create a daily schedule and routine that helps make having a bowel movement an easier and more comfortable process. This method takes time and effort and should be undertaken with the help of a physician.​

Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)

A variety of herbal remedies and supplements are used for their laxative or stool-bulking effects. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine discusses the research that might support some specific remedies.

Flaxseed contains fiber that is beneficial as a bulk-forming laxative. It has had little research related to constipation, but it falls within the general guideline of bulk-forming OTC laxatives or adding more fiber to your diet. Be sure that you don't eat raw or unripe flaxseed as it contains some toxic compounds. Always take flaxseed with lots of water or it can make your constipation worse.

Aloe latex has a strong laxative effect, so much so that it was used in OTC laxative products until 2002, when the FDA required they be reformulated or removed from the market. It can cause abdominal cramps and diarrhea. As with many herbal products that say they have a laxative effect, check with your doctor as they may affect the absorption of other medications you are taking.

Some people use probiotics for constipation. More research is needed as to how well this approach works.

A Word From Verywell

In cases of uncomplicated constipation, some changes in diet and lifestyle are all that will be needed to meet the goal of a soft, well-formed, easily passed stool. When disease or medication is the cause of constipation, other treatments might be needed. Always consult with a physician regarding constipation that becomes chronic or if enemas or stimulant laxatives are needed to have a bowel movement.

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