Constipation occurs when your bowel movements become less frequent and stools become difficult to pass. It happens most often due to changes in diet or routine, or due to inadequate intake of fiber. You should call a healthcare provider if you have severe pain, blood in your stool or constipation that lasts longer than three weeks.
Having fewer than three bowel movements a week is, technically, the definition of constipation. But how often you poop varies widely from person to person. Some people poop several times a day while others only poop one to two times a week. Whatever your bowel movement pattern is, it’s unique and normal for you — as long as you don’t stray too far from your pattern.
Regardless of your bowel pattern, one fact is certain: The longer you go before you poop, the more difficult it becomes for poop to pass. Other key features that usually define constipation include:
You’re not alone if you’re feeling constipated. Constipation is one of the most frequent gastrointestinal complaints in the United States. At least 2.5 million people see their healthcare provider each year due to constipation.
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Constipation happens because your colon (large intestine) absorbs too much water from your poop. This dries out your poop, making it hard in consistency and difficult to push out of your body.
To back up a bit, as food normally moves through your digestive tract, your intestines gradually absorb the nutrients. The partially digested food (waste) that passes from your small intestine to your large intestine becomes your poop. Your colon absorbs water from this waste, which makes it more solid. If you have constipation, food may move too slowly through your digestive tract. This gives your colon more time — too much time — to absorb water from the waste. The stool becomes dry, hard and difficult to push out.
There are many causes of constipation, including lifestyle factors, medications and medical conditions.
Common lifestyle causes of constipation include:
Medications that can cause constipation include:
Many drugs can cause constipation. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist if you have any questions or concerns.
Medical and health conditions that can cause constipation include:
Constipation symptoms include:
People of all ages can have an occasional bout of constipation. But certain risk factors make people more likely to become consistently constipated (“chronic constipation”). These factors include:
There are a few complications that could happen if you don’t have soft, regular bowel movements. Some complications include:
This usually isn’t the case. Although your colon holds on to stool longer when you’re constipated and you may feel uncomfortable, it’s an expandable container for your waste. It takes a severe illness in your colon for the walls to leak toxins into your body (toxic megacolon).
Talking to a healthcare provider — or anyone — about your bowel movements (or lack of them) may not be the most pleasant of topics. But know that your provider is there for you. They’re a trained healthcare professional who’s discussed just about every health topic you can think of with their patients.
Your provider will begin by asking you questions about your medical history, bowel movements, lifestyle and routines.
These questions may include:
These questions may include:
Your provider will also perform a physical exam, which includes a check of your vital signs (temperature, pulse, blood pressure). They’ll use a stethoscope to listen to the sounds in your abdomen. They’ll also touch your abdomen to check for pain, tenderness, swelling and lumps.
Be aware that your provider may also perform a rectal exam. This is a finger exam of the inside of your rectum. It’s a quick check for any masses or problems that can be felt by a finger.
Your healthcare provider may not order any tests or may order many types of tests and procedures. Tests will depend on your symptoms, medical history, and overall health and what they think the cause might be. Most of the time, additional lab testing isn’t required for a diagnosis. However, your healthcare provider may choose to do more based on your symptoms.
You can manage most cases of mild to moderate constipation at home. Self-care starts by taking an inventory of what you eat and drink and then making changes.
Some recommendations for immediate constipation relief at home include:
In addition to self-care methods, your healthcare provider will review your medications and supplements (if you take any). Some of these products can cause constipation. If they do, your provider may change the dose, switch to another drug and/or ask that you stop taking the supplement. Never stop taking your medications or supplements before talking with your provider first.
A few prescription drugs are available to treat constipation. These include:
Your healthcare provider will pick the drug that might work best for you based on the results of your tests.
Surgery is rarely needed to treat constipation. But your healthcare provider may recommend surgery if a structural problem in your colon is causing constipation. Examples of these problems include:
Some causes of outlet dysfunction constipation may be treated with surgery. This is best discussed after testing. You may also need surgery if a colonoscopy reveals cancer in your colon, rectum or anus.
Use the same home-based methods you used to treat constipation to prevent it from becoming a chronic problem:
Call a healthcare provider if:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Remember, talk openly and honestly with your healthcare provider about your bowel movements and any questions or concerns you may have. Pooping is something we all should be doing. Constipation may be a temporary situation, a long-term issue or a sign of a more serious condition. Be safe. See your provider, especially if you’ve noticed a change in your bowel pattern or if your life is being ruled by your bowels.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/18/2023.
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