Without treatment, long-standing constipation can lead to bowel problems such as anal fissures. Some can lead to serious problems, such as fecal impaction, which could lead to hospitalization, surgery, or even death.

People experiencing constipation have hard, lumpy, or dry stools that are difficult or painful to pass. The condition is common and can occur in all ages. Without treatment, constipation may lead to health complications.

Around 16% of adults have constipation symptoms. Its prevalence is higher among older individuals, affecting almost one-third of older adults over 60 years.

Read on to learn more about the possible risks and complications of constipation, how to prevent constipation, and when to consult a doctor.

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Constipation can cause pelvic or abdominal discomfort and cramping. It can also cause pain or discomfort while passing stool.

Hard stool that is difficult to pass can also lead to anal fissures, which are tears in the lining of the anus that can cause severe pain and bleeding.

The pain can prevent a person from bending, sitting down, walking, or engaging in sexual activity.

A 2019 study suggests that constipation and extensive laxative use have independent associations with a higher risk of death and cardiovascular diseases (CVD), such as ischemic stroke and coronary heart disease (CHD).

The study also found the risk of CHD and ischemic stroke was higher in people with constipation who used multiple laxatives.

Experts theorize that atypical changes in the gut microbiota, which doctors call dysbiosis, contribute to the development of various diseases, such as atherosclerosis. These diseases occur due to dysbiosis, which leads to chronic inflammation and high serotonin levels, which occur in people with constipation.

Chronic constipation can also cause mental stress and straining, both of which can cause blood pressure to rise, triggering events such as:

About 30 to 67% of people with chronic constipation have rectal prolapse. Rectal prolapse occurs when the large intestine detaches from the pelvic wall and pushes out of the anus.

This may worsen constipation because it can block stool from passing easily. Without treatment, rectal prolapse can lead to tissue death and decay, which is known as gangrene, of the strangulated area. This requires emergency surgery.

Chronic or severe constipation commonly results in fecal impaction. It is prevalent in older adults, affecting nearly half of people in geriatric wards.

Its typical symptoms include:

  • abdominal or rectal pain and distension
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • anorexia

Fecal impaction can be deadly, especially in older adults, hospitalized people, and those with underlying neuropsychiatric conditions.

More extensive laxative use and constipation have links to a higher risk of death, according to a 2019 study involving over 3.3 million United States veterans.

Similarly, a 2016 Japanese study found that a decreased frequency of passing stools had links to a higher risk of CVD mortality.

People should inform their doctor if they notice sudden changes in their bowel movements, such as constipation.

It is best to consult a doctor if a person experiences any of the following with constipation:

  • blood in stool
  • bleeding from the rectum
  • chronic or sudden severe abdominal pain
  • unexplained weight loss
  • trouble passing gas
  • fever and vomiting
  • lower back pain
  • rectal pain or pressure

Read more about the warning signs of severe constipation.

The following may help prevent and treat constipation:

  • dietary changes, including eating high fiber foods and drinking plenty of water
  • regular physical activity
  • making a habit of passing stool at the same time each day
  • talking with a doctor about alternatives to medications that cause constipation
  • over-the-counter drugs for constipation

See more home remedies for constipation.

If at-home treatments do not help, a doctor may recommend:

  • prescription medications such as lubiprostone
  • biofeedback therapy
  • surgery

The following are some questions people frequently ask about constipation.

Can severe constipation be life threatening?

Yes. Severe constipation can cause complications that can be life threatening, including fecal impaction and cardiovascular events such as stroke.

How long do doctors consider someone dangerously constipated?

A person may be constipated if they have fewer than three bowel movements weekly. Going a week or more without bowel movement may indicate severe constipation.

What happens when a person is severely constipated?

Severe and chronic constipation can cause a person to develop complications such as fecal impaction or rectal prolapse, which can lead to death.

Studies show chronic constipation has links to deadly cardiovascular events such as stroke and heart failure.

What are the signs of an impacted bowel?

People with impacted bowels typically complain of total constipation. Other signs include:

  • abdominal distension
  • a palpable fecal mass
  • rectal or abdominal discomfort or pain

Constipation is a widespread problem that affects people of all ages.

Without treatment, it can lead to serious complications such as rectal prolapse and fecal impaction, which may be life threatening.