- When is it time to see a doctor about constipation?
- How you can treat constipation at home.
- Signs and Symptoms of Constipation
- Normal time between poops
- Constipation Symptoms
- Signs and Symptoms
- Constipation and Back Pain
- Symptoms & Causes of Constipation in Children
- What are the symptoms of constipation in children?
- When should my child see a doctor?
- What causes constipation in children?
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What Is Constipation?
Someone might have constipation if they:
- have fewer than three bowel movements (BMs) in a week
- have trouble having a bowel movement
- have stool (poop) that’s hard, dry, and unusually large
Constipation is a very common problem. It usually isn’t a cause for concern. Healthy eating and exercise habits can help prevent it.
What Causes Constipation?
Reasons why people get constipated include:
- Unhealthy diet. Constipation can be due to a diet that doesn’t include enough water and fiber, both of which help the bowels move as they should. People who eat lots of processed foods, cheeses, white bread and bagels, and meats may find they’re constipated often. A healthier diet that includes high-fiber foods (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) can keep the stool from getting hard and dry.
- Not enough exercise. Moving around helps food move through the digestive system. So not getting enough physical activity can contribute to constipation.
- Stress. People can get constipated when they’re anxious about something, like a life change or a problem at home. Stress can affect how the digestive system works and can cause constipation, as well as other conditions, like diarrhea.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A person with IBS may have either constipation or diarrhea, as well as stomach pain and gas.
- Ignoring the natural urge. Avoiding going to the bathroom, even when you really have the urge to go, can cause constipation. When you ignore the urge to go, it can be harder to go later on.
- Some medicines. Sometimes, medicines like antidepressants and those used to treat iron deficiencies can lead to constipation.
In rare cases, constipation is a sign of other medical illnesses. Call your doctor if you continue to have problems, or if the constipation lasts for 2 to 3 weeks.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Constipation?
Different people have different bathroom habits. So someone who doesn’t have a bowel movement every day isn’t necessarily constipated. One person might go three times a day, while another might go once every 2–3 days.
But if you’re going less than you normally do, or if it’s often hard or painful to go, you might be constipated. A person with constipation might:
- feel full or bloated
- feel pain when making a bowel movement
- have to strain to make a bowel movement
- notice a little blood on the toilet paper
How Can I Deal With and Prevent Constipation?
To prevent and treat constipation:
- Drink more liquids. Drinking enough water and other liquids helps keep stools soft so they can move more easily through the intestines. When you don’t drink enough, the stool can get hard and dry, and you might get stopped up.
- Eat more fiber. Eating high-fiber foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread, can help prevent constipation. Fiber can’t be digested, so it helps clean out the intestines by moving the bowels along. A diet full of fatty, sugary, or starchy foods can slow the bowels down. To get more fiber in your diet, try fresh fruits like pears, apples (with the skin), oranges, and ripe bananas, or dried fruits like prunes. Other high-fiber foods include beans, oatmeal, whole-grain breads, and popcorn.
- Make sure you get enough exercise. Physical activity helps move food through the digestive system and nudges the bowels into action, so be sure to get plenty of exercise. It can be as simple as playing catch, cycling, or shooting a few hoops.
- Set a regular meal schedule. Eating is a natural stimulant for the bowels, so regular meals may help you develop routine bowel habits. You might schedule breakfast a little earlier to give yourself a chance for a relaxed visit to the bathroom before school.
- Get into the habit of going. Maybe you don’t want to use the bathroom at school, or maybe you just don’t want to stop what you’re doing right then. But ignoring your body’s signals that it’s time to go can make it harder to go later on.
Some medical conditions — like diabetes, lupus, or problems with the thyroid gland — also can cause constipation. If you’re worried that your constipation is a sign of something else, talk to your parents and your doctor.
Reviewed by: Joanne Murren-Boezem, MD Date reviewed: July 2018
When is it time to see a doctor about constipation?
Many people get spooked if they can’t go to the bathroom for a few days, but it’s not a medical emergency, says Robynne Chutkan, M.D., a gastroenterologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and author of Gutbliss: A 10-Day Plan to Ban Bloat, Flush Toxins, and Dump Your Digestive Baggage.
However, if it’s been a week since your last bowel movement—and you’ve tried at-home treatments to no avail—that’s a good time to call your doc to schedule an in-office visit, says Chutkan,
Other than how frequently—er, how infrequently—you’re on the toilet, more serious symptoms you should look out for include: changes in stool texture, blood in stool, hemorrhoids, weight loss, decreased appetite, or nausea and vomiting.
In those cases, a doctor’s number-one concern about your number-twos is colorectal cancer. So they’ll want to rule it out before figuring out any other causes of constipation.
In rare cases, your constipation could also be a form of digestive obstruction, where there is an actual blockage in your system, says Latorre. “Patients will usually look very sick with nausea, vomiting, abdominal distention, and pain. They key difference is that they are also unable to pass gas,” she explains. If you’re experiencing any of those symptoms, get to a doctor ASAP.
When you do go see an M.D. (and rule out colorectal cancer), they’ll likely ask you to keep a “bowel diary,” in which you write down all of your symptoms, the frequency, and when they occur, Latorre says. “It’s also important to have an up-to-date medication list as some medications, like diuretics, iron, calcium, and opiates are notorious for causing constipation,” she says.
How you can treat constipation at home.
If constipation is a pretty new thing for you (i.e., you’ve been going fewer than three times a week, for weeks on end), you should try to remedy things at home.
It may sound obvious, but really, the best ways to help your digestion are to eat a diet high in fiber (25 to 35 grams a day), stay hydrated, and exercise, says Latorre.
“If you’re not moving, neither are your bowels,” says Chutkan. Increase your unprocessed fiber intake from natural sources, like fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and make sure you’re upping your H20 intake to move everything smoothly through your system.
If that doesn’t work, try a fiber supplement or one to two tablespoons of pure psyllium husk (you can find this in a product like Metamucil) with plenty of water, says Chutkan.
Beyond lifestyle updates, you could also try laxatives—and there are two main types: osmotic and stimulant. “Osmotic laxatives help pull water into your colon to hydrate stool,” while stimulant laxatives actually contract your bowels, says Latorre. But, keep in mind, if you’re using laxatives regularly, that’s a sign you need to visit a gastroenterologist, she adds.
But yeah, don’t ignore it if you haven’t pooped in awhile: “Stool is waste matter,” says Chutkan. “It’s toxic, and it’s not supposed to be hanging around in your colon for several days at a time.”
So even if your symptoms aren’t bad enough for you to head to the hospital, you should still try to get your pipes moving—ASAP.
Signs and Symptoms of Constipation
Constipation can be an uncomfortable problem. In severe cases, constipation can be painful or even life-threatening. Because normal bowel frequency can vary greatly from person to person, many people may not be entirely sure whether or not they are constipated.
Constipation is a medical condition in which bowel movements become less frequent than normal, and/or difficult to produce. While clinically defined as not producing bowel movements for three days or longer, if a person’s regular bowel schedule is two or three times a day, that person might be constipated if he or she hasn’t produced a single bowel movement after only one day.
Patients may be constipated if they are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms:
Abdominal pain and bloating. Constipated patients may feel tightness in their abdomen, or a sharp, cramping pain deep in their gut. They may also feel full all the time—as if they’ve just eaten a large meal—even when they haven’t eaten for several hours. Patients may also feel gassy, but passing gas does not relieve discomfort.
Nausea and/or vomiting. It may seem counterintuitive, but nausea and vomiting can be a symptom of constipation. While constipation affects the intestines and not the stomach, being constipated slows down the entire digestive system, which can delay or prevent food in the stomach from reaching the intestines. When this happens, constipated patients may feel nauseous or even vomit. Diarrhea may also result if the body’s overall digestive process is impaired by partial stool blockages.
Hard stools or inability to have a bowel movement. Constipation causes stools to dehydrate and harden, which makes bowel movements difficult. Sometimes it can be hard for people to determine whether or not their stools are hard, however. To help educate patients about stools, a British hospital developed the Bristol Stool Chart,1 sometimes called the Bristol Stool Scale, as a simple visual guide for assessing stool hardness. The chart illustrates seven types of stools. When patients consult their doctor about possible constipation, they can reference the chart to explain their recent stools.
Small stools followed by a feeling of not emptying the bowels. Constipation may cause people to produce only tiny bowel movements. These tiny bowel movements are often followed by frequent and continued urges to “go,” but constipated patients may find they are unable to produce another bowel movement despite the constant urges.
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Infrequent bowel movements. Patients who are producing fewer bowel movements per day or week than is normal for them may be constipated. While the medical definition of constipation is producing fewer than three bowel movements per week, some patients may still feel constipated even if they are producing five or six bowel movements per week.
Straining during a bowel movement. Constipated patients may have to push and strain their entire lower bodies to produce a bowel movement. They may even develop sore abdominal muscles or feel as if they are engaging in hard physical labor every time they go to the bathroom. Despite these straining efforts, patients still may not be able to produce a bowel movement, or do so only with great discomfort.
Rectal bleeding due to the development of anal fissures and/or hemorrhoids caused by hard stools. The strain of passing hard stools can cause the development of varicose veins in the rectum, which are known as hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids can be painful, itchy, or both. They can make sitting for long periods uncomfortable or painful, and may make bowel movements more difficult. Anal fissures are small tears to the anus and surrounding tissue that can cause bleeding, burning, and pain, especially during bowel movements.
Anyone who experiences unusual or more serious symptoms, such as severe abdominal cramping, bloating, blood in the stool, or dizziness, should consult a physician immediately.
Normal time between poops
People who are finding it difficult to poop can usually treat the issue at home by trying a few natural remedies:
Eat fiber-rich foods or take a fiber supplement
Fiber helps make stool soft so it can pass through the colon more easily. Fiber-rich foods include beans, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and oats.
Moisture helps make stool soft and easier to pass. Everyone needs different amounts of liquid each day depending on factors such as age and activity level. However, many people require somewhere between 1.5 and 2 liters per day.
Get regular exercise
Regular physical activity can aid regular bowel movements. As little as 30 minutes of brisk walking daily may help.
Train the bowels
To maintain a regular habit, try pooping at the same time or times every day. For example, it may be best to try to poop around 15–45 minutes after breakfast, as eating helps the colon pass stool.
Stop taking certain dietary supplements
Some dietary supplements can cause constipation. Reduce the dosage of the supplement if symptoms occur and stop using it altogether if symptoms become severe.
Talk to a doctor about medication usage
Many medications contribute to constipation. If symptoms occur, people should talk with a doctor about changing the dosage or trying alternative medications.
Never stop taking a medication unless a doctor advises it or if symptoms are extremely severe.
Try taking laxatives
Laxatives loosen stool in the colon, encouraging it to pass.
Types of laxative include fiber supplements (FiberCon, Metamucil), lubricants (Fleet), stimulants (Dulcolax, Correctol), osmotic agents such as milk of magnesia, and stool softeners (Colace, Docusate).
A doctor or pharmacist can help a person determine the laxative that is best for them. In many cases, stimulants are only necessary as a last resort. This is because they can lead to electrolyte imbalances and dehydration, especially among pregnant women.
Many laxatives are available to buy online.
Avoid foods that increase the risk of constipation
Some foods, especially those with little or no fiber, can contribute to constipation. Foods to avoid include prepared and processed foods, red meat, fast food, most snack foods, candies, and sweets.
Try herbal remedies
More research is needed, but it seems that a variety of herbal remedies may reduce constipation by acting as a bulking agent or laxative. These include Ficus carica, senna, aloe, cascara, and rheum officinale.
Many herbal laxatives are available to buy online.
Try medical treatments
Doctors may prescribe medications to treat severe or ongoing cases of constipation. These medications may include lubiprostone, linaclotide, plecanatide, and prucalopride.
Doctors may also advise that people with constipation due to muscle control issues undergo biofeedback therapy to retrain their muscles.
People with an anorectal blockage and those whose colons do not work properly may require surgery.
Constipation often involves dry stool that’s hard to pass and the feeling that you’re unable to completely empty your bowels.
Constipation, which develops when digested food spends too much time in the colon, can result from a wide range of factors.
Common causes of constipation include:
- A low-fiber diet
- GI problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, obstructive tumors, and celiac disease
- Travel and other changes to daily routines
- Frequently using laxatives or enemas
- Various medications
Whatever the cause, constipation is often associated with the same common signs and symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms
There’s no real “right” number of bowel movements you should have in a day or week — it’s different for each person.
Having a bowel moment anywhere from three times a week to three times a day is generally considered within the healthy range.
Most commonly, though, constipation is said to occur when you have fewer than three bowel movements in a week.
Other signs and symptoms of constipation include:
- Having lumpy, hard, dry stool that’s difficult to pass
- Straining to pass stool
- Feeling like you still need to go after you have a bowel movement (like you haven’t fully emptied your bowels)
- Feeling like there’s a blockage in the intestines or rectum
- Pain or bloating in the abdomen
- Reduced appetite
- Sluggishness or lethargy
Contrary to common belief, the body does not absorb waste that is trapped, which would cause significant danger to your overall health.
In fact, constipation is more often just bothersome rather than serious.
But chronic (long-term) constipation can lead to some complications, including hemorrhoids, tears in the skin around the anus (anal fissures), and rectal prolapse (a condition in which part of the rectum sticks out of the anus).
Constipation and Back Pain
It’s not unusual for constipation and back pain to occur together.
In some cases, constipation may indirectly result from back pain. That is, you can become constipated after taking certain pain medications, particularly drugs such as opiates.
In other cases, constipation and back pain may both be symptoms of another health issue.
For instance, irritable bowel syndrome can cause both constipation and backaches, even though the two symptoms may not be directly related.
Back pain can also develop from fecal impaction, another complication of chronic constipation.
This condition occurs when a large chunk of dry, hard stool gets trapped in the rectum and you’re unable to push it out.
Fecal impaction is especially common if you’re constipated for a long time and are taking a lot of laxatives.
Your body becomes accustomed to the medication and “forgets” how to normally pass stool once you stop taking the laxatives.
If you have a fecal impaction, the hardened stool may press on the sacral nerves of the lower back, resulting in back pain.
This back pain will remain until its source — the impaction — is removed through a procedure that usually involves a doctor manually reaching into the rectum to break up the hardened stool.
Symptoms & Causes of Constipation in Children
What are the symptoms of constipation in children?
Symptoms of constipation in children may include your child
- having fewer than two bowel movements a week
- passing stools that are hard, dry, or lumpy
- having stools that are difficult or painful to pass
- telling you that he or she feels that not all stool has passed
- changing positions to avoid or delay having a bowel movement, including
- standing on tiptoes and then rocking back on his or her heels
- clenching his or her buttocks
- doing unusual, dancelike movements
- having a swollen abdomen, or bloating
- having daytime or nighttime wetting
- having stool in his or her underwear that looks like diarrhea
If your child avoids or delays having a bowel movement, he or she may develop a fecal impaction.
When should my child see a doctor?
Your child should see a doctor if his or her symptoms last for more than 2 weeks or do not go away with at-home treatment.
Take your child to a doctor right away if he or she has constipation and any of the following symptoms
- bleeding from his or her rectum
- blood in his or her stool
- constant pain in his or her abdomen
- weight loss
What causes constipation in children?
Children most often get constipated from holding in their stool to avoid or delay having a bowel movement. When stool stays too long in the colon, the colon absorbs too much fluid from the stool. Then the stool becomes hard, dry, and difficult to pass. Learn more about the digestive system and how it works.
Your child may delay or avoid a bowel movement because he or she
- feels stressed about potty training
- feels embarrassed to use a public bathroom
- does not want to interrupt playtime
- fears having a painful or an unpleasant bowel movement
Children most often get constipated from holding in their stool.
Medicines and dietary supplements that can make constipation in children worse include
- antacids that contain aluminum and calcium
- anticholinergics and antispasmodics
- anticonvulsants—used to prevent seizures
- iron supplements
- narcotic pain medicines
- some medicines used to treat depression
Certain health and nutrition problems can cause constipation in children
- not eating enough fiber
- not drinking enough liquids or dehydration
- Hirschsprung disease
- celiac disease
- disorders that affect your brain and spine, such as spina bifida
- spinal cord or brain injuries
- conditions that affect their metabolism, such as diabetes
- conditions that affect their hormones, such as hypothyroidism
- problems that can block or narrow the colon or rectum, including tumors