What Causes Hard Stool & How to Find Relief

Passing hard stools can be painful and have visible characteristics of small compact pellets. If you notice that your bowel movements contain hard stools, it may be caused by dehydration, not eating enough fiber, lack of exercise, or sign of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Read below for more information on causes of hard poop and treatment options.

Your hard, painful stool symptoms explained

If pooping hasn't felt like a relief lately, or your stool is hard or pellet-like, you may think you're constipated or have an issue with your bowels. Hard stool is quite common and, surprisingly, has little to do with constipation. In fact, hard stools are typically a sign of a gut or digestive issue. Hard stools usually allow you to have a bowel movement, but the stools are compact and hard to push out.

What hard stool may indicate

Hard stool can signal that something in your body is off balance, such as the following.

  • You're not eating enough fiber
  • You're not drinking enough water
  • You're not getting enough exercise
  • You may have a serious gut issue called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Common characteristics of hard stool

If you're experiencing hard stool, it can likely present with the following.

  • Hard, pellet-like stools
  • Difficulty emptying the bowels
  • Pain after defecating from strain on the colon

What is causing your hard stools?

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What causes hard stool?

The small intestines absorb the food we eat and then turn it into a liquid and fiber mixture. This mixture is sent to the large intestines, where it becomes stool (waste). As the waste passes through the large intestines liquid is drawn out and the substance turns into what we see as our poop or feces. If the substance stays in the large intestine for too long, more liquid will be drawn out of it, resulting in hard, dry stools. Constipation is a different condition where you don't produce stool in the large intestines and you have fewer than three bowel movements a week. With hard stools, you may go every day, the stool is just overly hard and difficult to pass.

Dehydration/not drinking enough water

A lack of fluids in the body, or dehydration, is the number one cause of hard stool symptoms and constipation. If you don't have enough water in your system as food passes from the stomach to the large intestines, all the water will be drawn out of the stool as it turns to waste. When all this water drains out of the stool, the stool becomes dry, hard, and difficult to pass out of the colon. Liquids add bulk and moisture to stool, which makes it easier to pass.

Not eating enough fiber

A diet rich in carbs and fats but low in fruits and vegetables can hinder stool production. You need at least 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day. Most Americans eat only five to 14 grams of fiber per day, so hard stools and constipation are common issues. Fiber turns to liquid in the intestines, which helps flush stool out of the large intestines and into the colon.

Lack of exercise/sedentary lifestyle

Exercise increases blood flow to the gut and rest of the body, and this helps control the speed of the muscles contractions of the gut.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Many people with IBS or other diseases of the gut have a problem forming stools and pushing them out of the colon.


Certain medications dehydrate or impact the bowels' ability to contract and push out stools. Medications that can cause hard stools or constipation include diuretics, narcotic pain medications, iron supplements, and antispasmodic drugs.

Normal variation of constipation

Constipation means bowel movements which have become infrequent and/or hardened and difficult to pass.

There is wide variation in what is thought "normal" when it comes to frequency of bowel movements. Anywhere from three times a day to three times a week is considered normal.

As long as stools are easy to pass, laxatives should not be used in an effort to force the body to a more frequent schedule.

Constipation is usually caused by lack of fiber in the diet; not drinking enough water; insufficient exercise; and often suppressing the urge to have a bowel movement.

A number of medications and remedies, especially narcotic pain relievers, can cause constipation.

Women are often affected, due to pregnancy and other hormonal changes. Young children who demand low-fiber or "junk food" diets are also susceptible.

Constipation is a condition, not a disease, and most of the time is easily corrected. If simple adjustments in diet, exercise, and bowel habits don't help, a doctor can be consulted to rule out a more serious cause.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, stomach bloating, constipation, constipation

Symptoms that always occur with normal variation of constipation: constipation

Symptoms that never occur with normal variation of constipation: vomiting

Urgency: Self-treatment

Constipation resulting from dehydration

Constipation means difficulty in passing bowel movements. A common cause of constipation is dehydration, or insufficient water in the body. If the contents of the bowel are not kept full and lubricated by plenty of fluid, the waste can become dry and packed and very hard to pass.

Most susceptible are pregnant women, especially those with a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum. This syndrome causes severe nausea and vomiting throughout most of the pregnancy and can easily lead to dehydration.

Anyone with an illness that causes prolonged vomiting and diarrhea will soon become dehydrated. A number of prescription medications can act as diuretics, meaning they cause the body to lose extra fluid through the urine.

The use of alcohol, or illegal drugs such as cocaine, also has a very dehydrating effect. The ill effects called a "hangover" that often happen after a night of drinking are actually due to the dehydration caused by the alcohol.

Treatment involves rehydrating, either with plain water by mouth or, in severe cases, hospitalization for IV fluid rehydration.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: constipation, constipation, general abdominal pain, pain in the lower left abdomen, pain when passing stools

Symptoms that always occur with constipation resulting from dehydration: constipation

Symptoms that never occur with constipation resulting from dehydration: vomiting

Urgency: Self-treatment

Constipation from not eating enough fiber

Constipation is defined as having stools which are large, hard, and difficult to pass. This leaves the person feeling bloated and uncomfortable. Many things can cause constipation, and a common one is lack of fiber in the diet.

To determine whether lack of fiber is causing the constipation, all other causes are first ruled out:

  • Not drinking enough water, sometimes to the point of dehydration.
  • Lack of exercise, which helps increase blood circulation and therefore motility (contraction and movement) of the bowel.
  • A very low or no-fat diet.
  • A need for probiotics, which replenish the "good" bacteria in the gut.
  • Medications, or certain illnesses, which have a constipating effect.
  • Constantly ignoring the feeling of needing to move the bowels, and delaying going to the toilet.

If fiber is needed, the best sources are fresh vegetables; fresh or dried fruits; and whole wheat and brown rice, because those include the fiber-rich bran. Over-the-counter fiber tablets can be tried, though laxatives should only be used if recommended by a medical provider.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: constipation, constipation, pain in the lower left abdomen, pain when passing stools, feeling of needing to constantly pass stool

Symptoms that always occur with constipation from not eating enough fiber: constipation, constipation

Symptoms that never occur with constipation from not eating enough fiber: vomiting

Urgency: Self-treatment

Chronic constipation

Constipation is a very common condition affecting the large intestine. It is characterized by difficulty passing stool, or passing stool less often. Commonly it is linked to not eating enough dietary fiber, not drinking enough fluids, or not getting enough exercise. Some medications can cause constipation as well.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: stomach bloating, constipation, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), pain when passing stools, rectal bleeding

Symptoms that always occur with chronic constipation: constipation

Symptoms that never occur with chronic constipation: unintentional weight loss

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Irritable bowel syndrome (ibs)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder of the large intestine. It is characterized by recurrent abdominal pain and bowel movement issues that can be difficult to treat. Signs and symptoms of IBS are usually not severe or life-threateni...

Possible early irritable bowel syndrome (ibs)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is very common problem that affects the large intestine. It can cause stomach pain, cramps, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. Doctors think that IBS is caused by the brain sending wrong messages to the bowels, such as during times of high stress, causing physical changes. The formal criteria for this diagnosis requires 3 months of symptoms. Therefore you may have an early presentation.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, stool changes, constipation

Urgency: Primary care doctor

So... which condition is actually causing your hard stools?

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Possible treatments for your hard poop symptoms


Drinking more water will help hydrate the stool, making it easier to pass. Getting more exercise will help the bowel to contract and pass stool in general. Since fiber dissolves into liquid in the gut, eating more soluble and insoluble fiber can help as well as taking fiber supplements.

At-home treatments

Use a stool softener or anal suppository for the quickest relief. Colace, Senokot, and Correctol are good brands to try, and Fleet enemas shoot water up into the colon, helping you to pass stools more easily.

When to see a doctor

If your hard stools persist despite a healthy diet, exercise, hydration, or trying over-the-counter aids, you need to see a doctor. He or she can look for any deeper issue that may be at work.

FAQs about hard stools

Here are some frequently asked questions about hard stools.

What foods can make your stool hard?

In general, foods that are low in fiber may cause or worsen constipation. Some examples include dairy products, white bread, red meat, fried foods, and alcohol. Not taking in enough fluids can also lead to constipation and hard stools.

Can hard stools lead to hemorrhoids?

Yes. Constipation is one of the main causes of hemorrhoids, or swollen rectal veins, in part because of straining during bowel movements. Hemorrhoids can be painful and may bleed during a bowel movement. If you see blood in your stool or your stool appears tar-colored, you should see a doctor to assess for other causes of bloody bowel movements besides hemorrhoids.

How do I soften my stool?

There are several ways to decrease or prevent constipation. Eating a high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables will improve bowel movements. You can also take fiber powders (Metamucil, Citrucel) and pills or eat high fiber cereals. Alternatively, there are medications that can improve constipation. They include stool softeners such as docusate sodium and laxatives such as psyllium seed, methylcellulose, polycarbophil, and dextrans.

Why is my toddler's poop so hard?

Your young child may have constipation because he or she may have a tear in his or her anus, which could lead to voluntary holding due to pain with defecation. Your child may have less frequent bowel movements if they are in an environment where they do not feel safe and secure. Alternatively, your child's constipation may be due to a medical problem such as Hirschsprung disease, an abnormality in the anus, or an abnormality in the spinal cord.

What can I do for constipation when pregnant?

Ways to improve constipation during pregnancy include consuming plenty of fluids, eating a high-fiber diet, and maintaining a moderate amount of exercise. In addition, you may consider using laxatives approved for use during pregnancy if the above methods do not improve your constipation.

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Take a thorough self-assessment on what you may have

Questions your doctor may ask about hard stools

  • Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Have you had any changes in your weight?
  • Do your symptoms start or worsen when you are dehydrated?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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