Constipation is when a person has difficulty passing stool. It can also cause pain, bloating, nausea, and other symptoms. Depending on the cause, medical treatments and home remedies may help.
Constipation can happen for many reasons, such as when stool passes through the colon too slowly. The slower the food moves through the digestive tract, the more water the colon absorbs, and the harder feces becomes.
Sometimes, constipation results from a blockage in the large or small intestine. In this case, a person needs urgent medical attention. At other times, it may be due to a lack of fiber or water.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms and causes of constipation. This article also discusses laxatives and other remedies that may help relieve constipation.
The main symptoms of constipation are:
fewer than three bowel movementsper week
- difficulty passing stool
- straining when passing stool
- passing less stool than usual
- lumpy, dry, or hard stool
Other symptoms include:
- abdominal pain and cramping
- feeling bloated
- a loss of appetite
There are numerous possible causes of constipation.
Lack of fiber in the diet
- whole grains
- lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes
Low levels of physical activity or not getting enough exercise may also lead to constipation.
Some medications can increase the risk of constipation. These include:
- antacids containing calcium and aluminum
- calcium channel blockers
- narcotic pain medications
It is best for a person to contact a doctor if they believe medication they are taking may be causing constipation.
Some medical conditions can cause or increase a person’s risk of constipation. These include:
- irritable bowel syndrome and other functional gastrointestinal disorders
- anxiety, depression, or stress
- celiac disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- diabetes and other conditions that affect metabolism
- hypothyroidism and other conditions that affect hormones
- inflammation due to proctitis or diverticular disease
- intestinal obstruction
Treating the underlying medical condition may help alleviate symptoms of constipation.
Other possible causes of constipation include:
- not drinking enough water
- changes in bowel movements as a person ages
- laxative overuse or abuse
Constipation in babies and infants
Constipation can sometimes affect babies and infants.
If a newborn does not pass meconium, their first solid stool, within 48 hours of birth, they may have Hirschsprung’s disease. This is a condition where certain nerve cells are missing from part of the large intestine. Stool is unable to move forward in the affected area of the colon, which causes a backup.
A healthcare professional will usually be able to spot these symptoms and recommend surgery as treatment. In most cases, the outlook is good for babies born with this condition.
- during weaning
- during potty training
- at times of stress, such as when starting school
Constipation in pregnancy
This can result from:
- hormonal changes
- physical changes, such as when the uterus presses on the intestines
- dietary changes
- reduced physical activity
Constipation may resolve on its own without the need for prescription treatment. However, laxatives can improve symptoms in the short term.
It is best to take laxatives for no more than a week at a time. If a person needs to use laxatives for more than a week, it is possible that they may need to treat an underlying condition that is causing constipation.
A pharmacist can recommend over-the-counter laxatives. Types of laxatives
- fiber supplements such as Citrucel and FiberCon
- stool softeners such as Docusate and Colace
- stimulants such as Dulcolax and Correctol
- osmotic agents such as Miralax and Milk of Magnesia
- lubricants such as mineral oil
Other treatment options
If constipation does not respond to laxatives, a doctor may suggest an abdominal imaging test or colonoscopy to see if an underlying condition is causing a blockage.
If there is, a person may need specific prescription medications or surgery to resolve it. Depending on the test results and the person’s response to medical or surgical therapy, they may also need further treatment.
Some natural remedies may help a person relieve constipation. They include:
- getting enough dietary fiber, aiming for around
22–34 gramsper day
- drinking enough water
- getting enough regular physical activity or exercise
- choosing the same time each day to try and have a bowel movement
These steps may also help a person prevent constipation from occurring. A doctor can provide them with more ways to treat or prevent constipation.
It is recommended that people get medical attention for constipation if
- blood in stool or bleeding from the rectum
- constant abdominal pain
- inability to pass gas
- lower back pain
- unexplained weight loss
A doctor may begin by requesting a full medical history, asking questions about symptoms, and performing a physical examination to help make an accurate diagnosis. The physical exam may include:
- checking for signs of dehydration
- checking for abdominal swelling, pain, or tenderness
- performing a rectal exam
The doctor may also order tests to confirm the diagnosis, identify an underlying cause, or rule out other possible causes. Tests
- imaging tests
- endoscopies, such as colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy
- bowel function tests
- lab tests, such as blood tests and urine tests
The doctor can advise a person on which tests they order and what they involve.
Constipation may cause complications if it persists or if it is a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.
Damage that can arise as a result of constipation includes:
- hemorrhoids or piles, which are swollen, inflamed blood vessels in the anus
- rectal bleeding after straining
- bowel incontinence
- anal fissure, which is a small tear around the anus
- fecal impaction, which occurs when dried stool stops moving and collects in the rectum and anus, potentially leading to a mechanical obstruction
Taking steps to prevent constipation and getting medical attention for persistent or severe constipation can help reduce the risk of complications.
Here are some frequently asked questions about constipation.
How do I get rid of constipation fast?
Laxatives may help relieve constipation quickly. Stimulant laxatives take approximately 6–12 hours to work.
What makes constipation go away?
Laxatives can help make constipation go away. However, if symptoms do not respond to laxatives, then a person may require treatments for an underlying cause. Home remedies such as increasing dietary fiber intake and drinking enough water can help regulate bowel movements.
Constipation typically refers to fewer than three bowel movements per week. There are numerous possible causes, such as not getting enough dietary fiber or water, taking certain medications, or having an underlying condition.
A doctor or pharmacist may recommend laxatives for short-term relief from constipation. Other medical treatments may be necessary if there is an underlying cause for constipation.
A person may be able to treat or prevent constipation with home remedies. These include getting enough dietary fiber, drinking more water, and getting enough regular physical activity.
If a person has severe symptoms or discomfort, or if symptoms get worse, it is best to contact a doctor for advice.