Constipation is when a person has difficulty passing bowel movements, which can be hard, lumpy, and dry. Constipation may cause abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, and other symptoms.
This article looks at what constipation feels like and when to contact a doctor. It also explores the diagnosis, causes, treatments, and possible complications of constipation.
A problem in one or more pathways that stool travels through may cause constipation. This can include problems in the nerves or muscles involved in passing stool. Hard, slow-moving stools may not move easily through the bowel.
Constipation may cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- feeling as though stool is stuck in the rectum
- a cramping sensation in the bowels
- a feeling of fullness in the stomach and abdomen
- a feeling of discomfort and heaviness in the stomach and abdomen
- bloating in the abdomen
- an ache in the back
A person should contact a doctor if they experience constipation and the following
- constant abdominal pain
- unintended weight loss
- inability to pass gas
- blood in stool
- bleeding from the rectum
- pain in the lower back
A person should also contact a doctor if their symptoms do not go away after treatment or if they have a family history of rectal or colon cancer.
A doctor typically relies on a person’s history and symptoms to diagnose constipation. A healthcare professional may also perform a physical examination. This may involve an examination of the rectum with a gloved finger to determine whether stool is present, how much is there, and what its consistency is.
A doctor will ask questions to determine the cause of constipation. Questions may focus
- someone’s personal and family medical history
- a person’s diet and exercise habits
A doctor will typically perform a further physical examination, which may involve:
- a rectal exam
- checking the abdomen for tenderness, pain, lumps, or swelling
- listening to the abdomen through a stethoscope
- checking the person’s temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate
- examining the patient for dehydration
A doctor may also order or administer various other tests to determine the cause of a person’s constipation. These can include:
- stool sample tests
- blood tests
- urine tests
- imaging tests such as CT scans
- colorectal transit studies
- other bowel function tests, such as a balloon expulsion test
Constipation usually occurs when stool moves through the digestive tract more slowly than usual. The body then absorbs too much water from the stool, leaving it dry and hard.
There are many potential causes of constipation — some of these can begin in the rectum or colon, while others may have external causes.
Factors that can contribute to constipation include:
- certain medications, such as diuretics and narcotic pain medications
- overuse or misuse of certain medications, such as laxatives
- eating a diet low in fiber
- low fluid intake
- consuming excessive alcohol
- consuming excessive caffeine
- bowel obstruction
- rectal prolapse, when part of the rectum slips down and protrudes from the anus
- rectocele, a type of pelvic organ prolapse
- neurologic disease
- endocrine disorders
- psychological issues, such as stress
A person may be able to treat constipation at home. In other cases, they may require treatment from a doctor depending on the severity and cause.
A person can
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as stool softeners, fiber supplements, laxatives, and osmotic agents, which draw water into the bowel
- drinking plenty of water
- eating a high fiber diet
- getting regular physical activity
In severe or chronic cases, doctors can
- advising someone to stop or replace certain medications and supplements
- prescribing medication, such as linaclotide, lubiprostone, and prucalopride
- giving biofeedback therapy
- performing surgery for rectal prolapse
In some cases, constipation may lead to further health issues. Possible complications of constipation can include:
- anal fissures
- urinary retention
- pelvic floor damage
- rectal prolapse
- bowel incontinence
- twisting of the intestine, called volvulus
Constipation can cause various symptoms, such as pain and discomfort in the abdomen, bloating, heaviness, and nausea. People with it may also feel that a stool remains in the rectum and cannot pass.
A person should contact a doctor if they experience constant pain in their abdomen, blood in the stool, fever, lower back pain, and the inability to pass gas.
Often, individuals can treat constipation at home with OTC medications. A high fiber diet, increased fluid intake, and regular exercise may help prevent constipation.
In severe or chronic cases, doctors can prescribe medication to treat constipation or recommend surgery to treat rectal prolapse.
Without treatment, constipation can lead to complications, such as hemorrhoids, anal fissures, bowel incontinence, and volvulus, which is a twisting of the intestines.