Contrary to popular belief, constipation does not refer to bowel movements stopping entirely — the term simply describes changes in the frequency and consistency of bowel movements.
If a person is constipated, it typically means that they have fewer than three bowel movements per week, though experiences vary.
Constipation can make stool harder and drier than usual, which can slow the movement of stool within the body.
Some people may have frequent but incomplete bowel movements. They may return to the bathroom frequently to pass stool, and a doctor may describe this as constipation.
Keep reading to learn more about constipation, including why constipation occurs, how to recognize and treat it, and when to consult a doctor.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases define constipation as:
- having fewer than three bowel movements per week
- passing lumpy, hard, or dry stool
- experiencing difficulty or pain while passing stool
- being unable to pass a full bowel movement (incomplete evacuation)
Other symptoms of constipation can include:
- rectal bleeding
- bloody stool
- excessive gas
- bloating or pain in the abdomen
- pain in the lower back
Numerous factors, involving diet, lifestyle, medications, and health conditions, can cause constipation.
A person may experience constipation as a result of:
- not eating enough fiber
- not drinking enough hydrating fluids
- eating foods that upset the digestive tract, such as dairy products or highly processed foods
- eating foods that can be difficult to digest, such as meat, nuts, and seeds
Constipation can also result from:
- not getting enough exercise
- resisting the urge to use the bathroom
- traveling on an airplane
- life changes that cause stress, such as moving homes or starting a new job
Constipation can be a side effect of various types of medication, including:
- iron supplements
- antacids that contain calcium and aluminum
- blood pressure medications, such as calcium channel blockers
- medications for diabetes
- pain medicines that contain opioids
The following are some health issues that can cause constipation:
Generally, the healthcare community define constipations as having fewer than three bowel movements per week.
However, bowel movement patterns naturally vary from person to person — some people have one or more bowel movements per day, while others have one every few days.
It is important for each person to recognize when their pattern and when the consistency of their stool become irregular.
In general, stool should have the following qualities:
- a smooth appearance
- a sausage-like shape
- a soft but firm texture
Also, having a bowel movement should be easy and pain-free.
The Bristol stool chart is a resource that helps physicians classify stool. You can see the chart and read more about the various types of poop here.
Many people experience occasional constipation that clears up on its own. However, some people require medical attention and treatment.
Constipation may last from a few days to several weeks. More lasting, or chronic, constipation can lead to health complications, such as:
- rectal bleeding
- anal fissures
- bowel obstruction
- fecal impaction
It may be a good idea to consult a doctor if a person:
- feels that they are constipated more often than not
- takes laxatives more than two or three times per week
- feels that constipation is causing their quality of life to decline
When talking to the doctor, it is important to report any additional symptoms and any impact that constipation is having on day-to-day activities.
A person may need immediate medical attention if they have been constipated for a long time and have intense abdominal pain and nausea or vomiting.
Doctors can treat constipation with prescription stool softeners and other types of laxatives.
People who have mild constipation may find dietary and lifestyles changes beneficial. Drinking more hydrating fluids, consuming more dietary fiber, and exercising regularly can help stimulate bowel movements.
Also, various over-the-counter laxatives are available at pharmacies and some supermarkets.
Prolonged constipation can result in an intestinal obstruction, or blockage. Or, it can cause fecal impaction, in which hard stool becomes stuck in the rectum, preventing the person from passing stool effectively. Either condition may require surgery.
A person may also need surgery when constipation results from a structural issue, such as a stricture or rectal prolapse.
Depending on the severity of the condition and how the body responds to other treatments, the surgery may involve removing part of the colon, or large intestine.
Contact a healthcare provider remedies, lifestyle changes, and over-the-counter treatments do not relieve constipation.
A person should also seek medical attention if they experience any of the following with constipation:
- rectal bleeding
- bloody stools
- persistent abdominal pain
- nausea or vomiting
- a fever
- unintentional weight loss
In rare cases, constipation and other bowel changes can indicate colorectal cancer. Anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer should see a doctor if they experience constipation for three or more days.
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer often causes bleeding within the digestive tract, which can result in dark, tar-like stool.
Any bleeding in the digestive tract can lower the person's red blood cell count and lead to anemia, if the person does not receive treatment.
A person may still poop when they are constipated, but bowel movements may be painful or difficult to pass.
Some people with constipation experience incomplete evacuation and feel the need to pass more stool even after using the bathroom.
It may be difficult or embarrassing to discuss constipation, even with a doctor. However, ignoring it can cause constipation to worsen, and it can lead to complications, such as fecal impaction.
Doctors can easily treat constipation with medication. Lifestyle adjustments — such as eating more fiber, staying hydrated, and getting regular exercise — can also stimulate bowel movements.
A doctor may prescribe laxatives to relieve constipation. It may be a good idea to speak with a doctor before trying an over-the-counter variety.