ConstipationEn Español (Spanish Version)
Constipation is infrequent and/or uncomfortable bowel movements. Stool is often hard and dry. It is the most common gastrointestinal complaint in the United States and accounts for 2 million annual visits to the doctor.
Constipation has many causes, including:
- Not enough fluid intake
- Overuse of laxative medicines
- Too little exercise
- Bed rest
- Certain medications, including:
- Frequently delaying the need to have a bowel movement
- Spasm of the anal sphincter, due to painful anal fissures or hemorrhoids
- Underactive thyroid
- Irritable bowel syndrome (periods of constipation may alternate with episodes of diarrhea)
- Neurological diseases such as:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
Intestinal disorders, including:
- Travel (due to schedule changes, stress, and poor diet)
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors for constipation include:
- Advancing age
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Prolonged bed rest due to surgery or an accident
- Diet that is high in fat and sugar but low in fiber
- Abdominal pain
- Sensation of abdominal fullness
- Rectal pain and pressure
- Difficulty passing stool, despite straining
- Hard, dry, small stool
- Black stool
- "Rabbit pellet" appearance to stool
- Sensation of retained stool after defecating
There are over-the-counter medications to treat constipation called laxatives. However, changes in bowel habits, such as constipation, may indicate a more serious medical condition.
Consult a doctor if you have:
- Abdominal pain
- Black stool
- Distended abdomen
- Consistent and significant change in your bowel habits
- Constipation that lasts longer than three weeks
Tests to rule out other medical conditions include:
- Physical exam or blood tests may be performed.
- Digital rectal exam—examination of the rectum with the doctor's gloved, lubricated finger inserted into your rectum
- Abdominal x-ray —a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the abdomen
- Barium enema —injection of fluid into the rectum that makes your colon light up on an x-ray
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy —a thin, lighted tube with a camera inserted into the rectum to examine the rectum and the lower colon
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Treatment may include:
Understanding Normal Bowel Movements
Talk to your doctor about what is a normal frequency of bowel movements for you. The range of normal is quite broad. Some people have several stools a day. Others have one stool every several days.
Making Lifestyle Changes
Taking Laxatives, Stool Softeners, or Glycerin Suppositories
Regularly using laxatives or enemas can be habit forming. Your bowels can become accustomed to these products and require them in order to produce a stool. Stool softeners, though, are not habit-forming. Ask your doctor about how often and for how long to use these products.
Examples of medications include:
- Polyethylene glycol 3350 (GlycoLax, MiraLax)—a type of laxative
- Psyllium —a bulk laxative
- Docusate —a stool softener
- Lactulose —a type of laxative
- Lubiprostone (Amitiza)—a medication that increases fluid in stool
- Tegaserod —a medication that brings fluids to the colon
- Colchicine —medication used to treat gout; sometimes used for constipation
- Botulism injections—may be used to treat certain types of constipation
Set aside the same time each day to move your bowels. Typically this works best after breakfast and coffee. Sit on the toilet for 15-20 minutes. Over time your body will learn to have regular bowel movements at the same time each day.
Biofeedback works by attaching sensors to the body. A therapist helps you understand your body’s signals and then you use them to help you move your bowels.
Treating Underlying Medical Conditions
Work with your doctor to treat other conditions that may be causing your constipation.
If you're taking medication that causes constipation, ask your doctor for an alternative.
If you are taking opioids to relieve pain, you may have constipation. A study found that the medication methylnaltrexone (Relistor) can rapidly relieve this side effect.
If you have severe, chronic constipation, your doctor may recommend surgery in some cases.
If you are diagnosed with constipation, follow your doctor's instructions .
To reduce your chance of getting constipation:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet that is high in fiber.
- Exercise regularly.
- Drink at least eight, 8 ounces glasses of water a day.
- In an effort to train your bowels, schedule a time daily to sit on the toilet just after a meal.
- Don't rush yourself when using the bathroom.
- If you feel the urge to defecate, listen to your body.
American Gastroenterological Association
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
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6/25/2008 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamicmedical.com/what.php : Thomas J, Karver S, Cooney GA, et al. Methylnaltrexone for opioid-induced constipation in advanced illness. N Engl J Med. 2008;358:2332-2343.
11/30/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Arebi N, Kalli T, Howson W, Clark S, Norton C. Systematic review of abdominal surgery for chronic idiopathic constipation. Colorectal Dis. 2010 Oct 22. [Epub ahead of print]
6/20/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance: Attaluri A, Donahoe R, Valestin J, Brown K, Rao SS. Randomised clinical trial: dried plums (prunes) vs. psyllium for constipation. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2011;33(7):822-828.
Last reviewed September 2010 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Last updated Updated: 6/20/2011
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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