Healthcare professionals may use an abdominal X-ray if someone is experiencing severe constipation. It can help them assess the digestive system and create a treatment plan.

Constipation can happen to anyone for many different reasons. The longer stool remains in the digestive tract, the harder feces become. A person who has had fewer than three bowel movements per week may be constipated.

People who experience constipation may notice the following symptoms:

  • lower back pain
  • pain in the abdomen
  • painful stools
  • inability to pass gas
  • incomplete passing of stools

In cases of severe constipation, a person should consider speaking with a doctor who may request an X-ray. They may also recommend additional testing to look for blockages or other visible causes of constipation.

This article examines X-rays for constipation, what the results mean, and home remedies for constipation.

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A person with constipation may undergo an X-ray to determine the cause of their symptoms and guide the doctor’s treatment choice. It is a widely available, relatively inexpensive form of medical imaging.

A 2018 review notes that X-rays have an 84% success rate for diagnosing constipation.

Up to 36% of children in the United States experience constipation at some point. Most often, it is children experiencing constipation that undergo X-rays for diagnosis. These screenings can detect fecal masses in the intestines and colon.

Doctors may recommend a functional X-ray test. This will help determine where along the digestive tract a person may have a blockage or problem processing their stools.

X-rays typically take place in the hospital, doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or stand-alone imaging center. Doctors may ask a person to lie flat on their back for an abdominal X-ray.

If a doctor wants to assess the speed of a person’s digestive system, they will recommend a Sitz marker exam.

Before this exam, a person must stop taking medications, such as laxatives, that may ease symptoms. This allows a doctor to assess the individual’s condition accurately.

A person will ingest Sitz marker capsules with food. The markers are small plastic rings containing special material that will appear on an X-ray.

X-ray images of the abdomen and pelvis allow a doctor to monitor the movement of these markers through the person’s colon. Typically, this takes between 24 and 56 hours. Most people clear the markers in 4–5 days, and during this time, they undergo daily X-rays.

When evaluating the X-ray images of a person’s abdomen and pelvis, doctors will look for certain factors, such as:

  • fecal buildup
  • any obstructions
  • gas patterns

Doctors use the Sitz markers as a guide for digestive speed.

There are two main conditions a doctor will look for when assessing X-ray images:

  • Adynamic paralytic ileus: This is when the intestines do not carry out typical movements, which can lead to an obstruction.
  • Bowel obstruction: This is when material, such as feces, scar tissue, swelling from infection, or other things, blocks the passageway through the intestines. This can eventually lead to perforation.

While underlying medical issues, such as blockages, can cause constipation, other more common causes include:

  • new medications
  • eating habits, such as a lack of fiber
  • changes to diet, such as while traveling
  • pregnancy
  • getting older

The following are some examples of ways to manage symptoms of constipation at home.

  • Laxatives: Laxatives can help move with the movement of stool. However, people should not use them regularly — needing to use laxatives frequently may signal an underlying condition.
  • Fiber intake: According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, adults should consume between 22 and 34 grams of fiber daily. Suitable sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Regular exercise: Physical activity can help increase bowel movement frequency.
  • Elevated feet: If a person cannot easily pass stool, raising their feet while trying to do so may help a stool move through the bowel.

If a person does not experience relief with these at-home remedies, they should seek medical attention.

Typically, if there is no other condition causing the symptoms, constipation will resolve on its own. Lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, can help prevent future bouts.

For people with severe constipation, medical attention may be necessary and may include:

A person’s lifestyle can affect bowel movement frequency, and the following approaches may help ensure regularity and prevent constipation:

  • Drinking enough water: Dehydration can cause stool to become hard and difficult to pass. Therefore, staying hydrated can prevent symptoms of constipation.
  • Consuming probiotic foods: Foods containing live bacteria called probiotics, such as yogurt and kimchi, can help support a person’s gut health.
  • Try avoiding dairy: Even mild dairy intolerance can lead to constipation, so limiting foods with dairy may help relieve symptoms.

Often, a person can alleviate symptoms of constipation at home.

However, if their symptoms are severe, they may find it necessary to seek medical attention. A doctor may recommend an X-ray to check whether a blockage is present. They may also recommend a Sitz marker test, which evaluates how fast food passes through a person’s digestive system.