Why Am I Constipated?

Constipation is common in both adults and children. This condition is defined as bowel movements that occur less than two or three times per week.

In the United States, 16% of adults experience symptoms of constipation, and that number rises to 33% for adults over the age of 60. Often, the condition is a symptom that you have another medical problem.

This article covers the symptoms and causes of constipation and explains how it can be treated.

Person sitting on the toilet

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What Is Constipation?

Constipation is a condition characterized by infrequent bowel movements.

The number of bowel movements that most people have each day or week varies, but it's considered ideal to have at least one daily. Typically, a person who's constipated will have fewer than three bowel movements a week.

Constipation is considered the most common gastrointestinal complaint and accounts for 2.5 million visits to the doctor every year. Roughly four million people in the United States have frequent constipation.

What Are the Symptoms?

Constipation can look different for everyone, but common symptoms may include:

  • Fewer than three bowel movements in a week
  • Bloating
  • Painful bowel movements
  • Straining and difficulty with bowel movements
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Stools that are hard and dry

In some cases, you may pass some stool yet still feel like you haven't gotten everything out.

What Causes Constipation?

There are numerous potential causes of constipation. Some may be due to lifestyle factors while others can be attributed to underlying health conditions.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Also known as IBS, irritable bowel syndrome can cause constipation. It may also cause people to strain during a bowel movement, experience abdominal discomfort, or have sluggish bowel movements. With IBS, periods of constipation may alternate with periods of diarrhea.

Other symptoms of IBS include bloating, cramps, and gas.

Lack of Exercise

Muscles play an important role in regular bowel movements. The muscles in the abdominal wall and the diaphragm help with defecation, and when these muscles aren't strong enough, problems like constipation can occur.

The colon reacts well to activity, and those who exercise regularly don't typically develop constipation. In older people who have a sedentary lifestyle, increasing exercise may improve constipation.

Insufficient Fluids and Fiber

Diet plays a crucial role in forming easy-to-pass stools. In the digestive tract, fiber absorbs water and creates large, soft stools that pass easily.

If a diet has low levels of fiber and fluids, constipation may occur.

In the majority of people, increasing the intake of fiber will help ease constipation. However, for those with severe constipation, increasing fiber may make their constipation worse.

Disruption to Routine or Life Changes

In some cases, changes to your normal routine like traveling may cause constipation. When your day-to-day schedule and activities change, you may have significant differences in your diet, exercise routine, and other habits. This can alter your body systems and cause constipation.

Life changes like pregnancy can also cause constipation. In pregnancy, constipation can be caused by hormonal changes or by an enlarged uterus putting pressure on the intestine.

Aging can cause reduced muscle tone as well as reduced activity in the intestine, resulting in an increased risk of constipation.

Other Possible Causes

Constipation may also be caused by a variety of other factors. These include:

Diagnosis

To diagnose the cause of constipation, your healthcare provider may use a combination of medical tests, a physical exam, and taking a medical and family history.

Family and Medical History

Your healthcare provider will begin by taking a medical and family history. You will be asked questions about your symptoms such as:

  • How frequent are bowel movements?
  • What do the stools look like?
  • How long have symptoms been present?
  • Do stools have any red streaks?
  • Does the toilet paper have streaks of blood after wiping?

Your healthcare provider may also ask questions about your lifestyle and medical history.

Questions may include:

  • How often do you exercise?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • What is your diet?
  • Have you had surgery in the digestive tract?
  • Do you have anemia or a history of anemia?
  • Have you gained or lost any weight recently?

Your healthcare provider may also ask you questions about your family history. This may include asking if you have a family history of conditions that can cause long-term constipation, such as:

Physical Exam

When diagnosing constipation, your healthcare provider may perform a physical exam to help determine the underlying cause of constipation.

This may involve:

  • Examining the abdomen to look for pain, tenderness, or swelling
  • Looking for masses or lumps in the abdomen
  • Doing a rectal exam
  • Checking blood pressure
  • Checking heart rate
  • Taking body temperature
  • Checking for signs of dehydration
  • Listening for sounds in the abdomen using a stethoscope

Other Tests

To determine what is causing constipation, your healthcare provider may order other tests to investigate. These may include:

  • Stool tests
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Endoscopy, in which a thin tube equipped with a camera is inserted through the mouth and down the esophagus to provide images of the small intestines
  • Colonoscopy, a procedure that involves a thin, camera-equipped tube being inserted into the anus to get a look at the inside of the colon
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy, where a flexible viewing tube with a camera on the end, called a sigmoidoscope, is inserted through the anus and into the rectum
  • Bowel function tests
  • Imaging tests

Treatment and Natural Remedies

In the majority of cases, constipation can be effectively treated through a combination of lifestyle and dietary changes as well as natural remedies.

Treatment options may include:

  • Following a diet that includes 20 to 35 grams of fiber every day
  • Limiting foods that are low in fiber like cheese, processed foods, or ice cream
  • Changing or eliminating medications causing constipation where possible
  • Using laxatives
  • Undergoing biofeedback therapy (a treatment that retrains the muscles that play a role in bowel movements)
  • Participating in regular exercise
  • Increasing fluid intake
  • Ensuring enough time for a daily bowel movement

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Constipation usually goes away with simple modifications to diet and lifestyle. However, if constipation persists despite at-home treatment, you should see a healthcare provider.

You should also see your doctor if you have constipation and any of the following:

  • A family history of rectal cancer or colon cancer
  • Pain in the lower back
  • Fever
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Bloody stools
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Persistent pain in the abdomen
  • Trouble passing gas
  • Vomiting

Prevention

There are a number of lifestyle changes that can be made to prevent constipation.

These include:

  • Increasing dietary fiber intake by eating whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
  • Exercising more
  • Increasing intake of water, aiming, ideally, for eight glasses every day
  • Not delaying going to the toilet when you feel the urge to go

Summary

Constipation is the most common gastrointestinal complaint. It can be caused by lifestyle factors including diet, but may also be an indication of an underlying condition. Typically, constipation can be treated effectively at home through lifestyle modifications or with laxatives. Constipation can be prevented by eating a diet high in fiber, increasing fluid intake, and exercising regularly.

A Word From Verywell

Being constipated can be uncomfortable and even embarrassing. But if you are constipated, you're not alone. Constipation is common and many adults and children experience this condition at some point in their lives. Increasing your fiber and fluid intake as well as regularly exercising may help prevent constipation as well help relieve the symptoms when it does occur. If you're concerned about your symptoms, reach out to a health care provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can happen if you're constipated for too long?

    Long-term constipation can lead to a number of complications. These include rectal bleeding and fecal impaction. Fecal impaction refers to the collection of dry and hard stools around the anus and rectum.

  • What does constipation do to your body?

    As well as causing difficulties with bowel movements, constipation can result in other symptoms. These may include feeling bloated, pain, and loss of energy.

 


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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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