Constipation: Symptoms, Treatments


Constipation is a condition of your digestive system, in which your bowel movements are tough or infrequent. It is defined medically as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. But bowel movements patterns vary from person to person. Only you know what your normal pattern is.

Constipation is very common. Almost everyone may experience it at some point. In the United States, about 16 out of 100 adults have symptoms of constipation.

Although constipation is not a disease, it may be a sign or symptom of another disease and influence your daily life.


People with constipation may have:

  • Few bowel movements (fewer than three stools a week)
  • Trouble having a bowel movement
  • Hard, small or lumpy stools
  • Feeling that you can’t completely empty your bowel
  • Feeling that you need help to empty your bowel
  • Belly bloating

If you have experienced two or more of these symptoms for the last three months, it may be considered chronic constipation.


In many cases, this occurs when the muscles in the colon are contracting slowly and poorly, causing the stool to move too slowly and become dry. Many possible causes contribute to constipation.

Blockage in the colon or rectum

If there are blockages in your colon or rectum, the movement of stool will be slowed or even stopped. Causes of blockage may include:

  • Anal fissure
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Colon cancer
  • Narrowing of the colon (bowel stricture)
  • Other abdominal cancer that presses on the colon
  • Rectal cancer
  • Rectum bulge through the back wall of the vagina (rectocele)

Problems with the nerves around the colon and rectum

Nerves that control the muscles responsible for moving the stool through your intestines can be affected by neurological problems. These problems may result from:

  • Autonomic neuropathy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Stroke

Problems with the muscles involved in elimination

Constipation is also linked to problems with pelvic muscles involved in having a bowel movement. These problems involve:

  • Inability to relax the pelvic muscles for a bowel movement (anismus)
  • Pelvic muscles don’t coordinate relaxation and contraction correctly (dyssynergia)
  • Weakened pelvic muscles

Conditions that affect hormones in the body

Since hormones can help balance fluids in your body, constipation may occur if the balance of hormones is affected by:

  • Diabetes
  • Overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
  • Pregnancy
  • Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)

Risk factors

You are more likely to experience constipation if you:

  • Are an older adult
  • Are a woman
  • Are dehydrated
  • Eat a diet that’s low in fiber
  • Get little or no physical activity
  • Take certain medications, including sedatives, narcotics, some antidepressants or medications to lower blood pressure
  • Have a mental health condition such as depression or an eating disorder


To diagnose constipation, your doctor may perform a general physical exam and a digital rectal exam as well as the following tests:

  • Blood tests: to look for a systemic condition.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: to examine your rectum and the lower portion of your colon.
  • Colonoscopy: to examine the entire colon with a flexible, camera-equipped tube.
  • Anorectal manometry: to measure the coordination of the muscles you use to move your bowels.
  • Balloon expulsion test: to evaluate anal sphincter muscle speed.
  • Colonic transit study: to evaluate how well food moves through the colon.
  • Defecography: to reveal a prolapse or problems with muscle function and muscle coordination.
  • MRI defecography: to visualize and assess the function of the defecation muscles; to diagnose problems that can cause constipation.


Treatment options include diet and lifestyle changes, laxatives and surgery.

Usually, diet and lifestyle changes are recommended first. You may try:

  • Adding fiber to your diet.
  • Exercising most days of the week.
  • Not resisting the urge to have a bowel movement.

If diet and lifestyle changes don’t help, you may use laxatives under your doctor’s instruction.

Laxatives include:

  • Fiber supplements that add bulk to your stool.
  • Stimulants that cause your intestine to contract.
  • Osmotic laxatives that help fluids move through the colon.
  • Lubricants that make it easy for stool to move through the colon.
  • Stool softeners that moisten the stool.
  • Enemas and suppositories that soften stool and produce a bowel movement.

Your doctor may also recommend a prescription medication, including:

  • Medications that draw water into your intestine (such as Amitiza and Linzess)

Amitiza: Basics

Linzess: Uses, Side Effects

  • Other types of medications (such as Cytotec and colchicine/probenecid)

Cytotec: Uses, Side Effects

Colchicine and Probenecid: Uses, Side Effects

If you failed to treat constipation with all the other treatments, having a surgery to remove part of the colon may be an option.

Keyword: constipation.

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What Measures Should I Take to Relieve Severe Constipation?

What Are the Most Effective Home Remedies for Constipation?

What Is IBS with Constipation?

What’s the Link Between Hemorrhoids and Constipation?

Constipation Cause Fecal Incontinence?

* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.