Constipation is a very common condition. Symptoms of constipation include having fewer than three bowel movements per week. Stools that are hard, dry or lumpy are symptoms of constipation. Other symptoms of constipation are stools that are difficult or painful to pass, and feeling as if not all stool has passed when you have a bowel movement.
In many cases, constipation will get better on its own with diet and lifestyle changes. However, if your constipation is not improving, or if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, like significant weight loss, bloody stool, or severe abdominal pain, it’s important to reach out to your medical provider.
When to See a Doctor for Constipation
If this is your first time experiencing constipation, it’s a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider for medical guidance (this is especially true for children).
Otherwise, if this is a chronic issue for you, there are specific symptoms that warrant further evaluation by your healthcare provider:
- Bloody stool
- Unintended weight loss
- Severe bloating
- Severe abdominal pain
- Inability to pass gas
- Lower back pain
- Not having a bowel movement for more than a week
Causes of Constipation
There are several possible causes of constipation. In many cases, constipation is caused by a change in diet or lifestyle. Other possible causes include:
- Slow movement of stool through the colon
- Pelvic floor disorders
- Functional gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Certain medicines or supplements
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Diverticular disease
- Celiac disease
There are several things you can do at home to make stools softer and easier to pass, including:
- Eating more high-fiber foods
- Drinking plenty of water and other liquids
- Taking a fiber supplement
- Regular exercise
- Use of a short-term over-the-counter (OTC) stool softener or laxative
Medical Treatment for Constipation
If your constipation doesn’t improve with over-the-counter and home treatment, you should reach out to your medical provider for care. Treatment options your provider may recommend include:
- Prescription medicines: Certain prescription medicines can help to increase fluid in the digestive tract, reduce pain in the abdomen, and make stool softer. Examples of these medications include lubiprostone, linaclotide, and prucalopride.
- Biofeedback therapy: Your provider may recommend biofeedback therapy to help you retrain your bowel muscles.
- Surgery: In severe cases of constipation caused by blockage in your colon, your provider may recommend surgery.
Risks of Untreated Constipation
Chronic constipation (or constipation that lasts for several weeks) can interfere with your daily tasks and quality of life. When left untreated, complications of untreated chronic constipation can lead to:
- Anal fissures: Tears in the anal canal that can also cause bright red blood in stool.
- Hemorrhoids: When blood vessels and veins around the anus and rectum become swollen or irritated.
- Fecal impaction: When hardened stools remain in the bowel; this can cause severe discomfort and may require disimpaction (manual removal of stool from your rectum).
- Rectal prolapse: A rare condition in which the rectum drops down through the anus; this is an emergency and requires surgery to fix.
Certain lifestyle habits can help to prevent constipation, including:
- Getting plenty of exercise
- Eating foods rich in fiber
- Drinking lots of fluids
- Not ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
- Practicing regular stress management
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