Read below about constipation, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your constipation from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Constipation Symptoms

It has been four days since you've gone to the bathroom. You feel bloated, gassy, stopped up, and your stomach hurts. You wish you'd taken your grandmother's advice and had a glass of prune juice every day of your life. You're constipated and need relief.

Constipation is a common disorder that affects all of us at one time or another. But if you're experiencing constipation symptoms often, or even daily (as some people might on certain medications), this can greatly impact your quality of life.

Constipation symptoms can either be an acute issue, brought on by a sudden change in eating habits, such as eating too little fiber, fruits, and vegetables; too little fluid consumption; or changes in lifestyle, such as travelling or eating out too often [1]. Constipation can also be chronic, resulting in having no bowel movements, no matter how much you try. This is common when taking certain medications, such as opioid pain medications, diuretics, and some other.

Everyone needs to "go." So, let's talk about what might be keeping you from having a good bowel movement, the symptoms of constipation, and common treatments to bring you relief.

Common symptoms of constipation are:

  • Having a bowel movement three times or less a week (daily is ideal, even twice daily)
  • Overly hard, compacted stools that are very difficult to void
  • Feeling of blocked bowels
  • Once you do "go," your stool is hard and pellet-like, and there's not enough of it
  • Needing to push and strain very hard to complete a bowel movement
  • Having to help yourself have a bowel movement through pushing on your abdomen, using enemas or fingers, or using laxatives
  • Feeling as if you are not completely voiding all stool [1]

More serious symptoms of constipation include:

Constipation symptoms that indicate you should see a doctor include:

  • Bloody stools (early sign of colon cancer)
  • Black, tarry stool (can indicate liver problems or early colon/rectal cancer)
  • Not having bowel movements at all
  • Constipation accompanied by abdominal pain and fever [1, 2]

Note: Colon and rectal cancer is on the rise today, and those diagnosed with colon/rectal cancer are getting younger and younger. Colon cancer can cause changes in bowel movements, and one of its primary symptoms is constipation, diarrhea, and a narrowing of stools [4].

Individuals at risk for colon cancer today are anyone over the age of 30, especially those with a family history of rectal or colon cancer. Today, doctors are recommended everyone start getting colonoscopies much earlier, any time after age 30 (American Cancer Society suggests 45)[11].

Constipation Causes Overview

Causes of colon cancer can be mild or serious. More benign causes of constipation include dehydration, not eating enough fiber in the diet, or a lack of physical movement [1, 2]. More serious causes include a blockage in the colon from a polyp or tumor[2]. Constipation can also be a result of endocrine or neurologic disorders, or diseases of the bowel and gut like Crohn's, IBS, or celiac disease [1, 2].

Common causes of constipation:

  • Dehydration
  • Being bed-ridden or sedentary (exercise helps get the bowels moving)
  • A fiber-poor diet
  • Frequent flying and traveling (traveling involves lots of sitting and eating convenience foods, that are typically low in fiber and fresh fruits and vegetables)
  • Taking certain types of medications [1, 2]

Serious causes of constipation symptoms:

  • Colon cancer: A tumor can block the colon and make passing stool difficult [4].
  • Small or large bowel obstruction: Usually bloating, pain and vomiting accompany this. This needs immediate medical attention [3].
  • Hemorrhoids or anal fissures: Any disorder of the anus can make it hard to have a bowel movement, often because it is painful to try and void [6].

Gastrointestinal disorders:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): This is a common condition, often characterized by alternating periods of diarrhea and constipation [5].
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: Inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis, can lead to changes in bowel habits. These diseases typically cause diarrhea or blood in the stool, constipation, and other symptoms [7].
  • Celiac Disease: Often this causes diarrhea and can also cause constipation [8].

Systemic constipation causes:

  • Hypothyroidism: New onset constipation should prompt an evaluation of your thyroid gland.
  • Neurologic: There are many conditions of the nervous system that cause constipation.
  • Depression : Changes in mood and depression, especially, can slow many body processes, including the bowels. The body gets depressed with the psyche.
  • Diabetes: This disease can lead to damage to the nerves that help move the bowels.
  • Medications: Many drugs have constipation as a side effect [1].

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Constipation

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced constipation. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Constipation From Not Eating Enough Fiber

    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 fiber, which is the material that provides bulk to your stools.

    Variable, but can resolve in days to weeks

    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
  2. 2.Constipation Resulting From Dehydration

    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 drinking enough water, which causes the stools to be dry and hard.

    Variable, but can resolve in days to weeks

    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
  3. 3.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.

    Variable

    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
  4. 4.Opioid - Related Constipation

    Opioids (oxycodone, morphine, percocet, fentanyl) are powerful pain relievers that act on different chemical receptors throughout the body. In the intestines, opioids signal the gut to slow down movement, leading to constipation.

    Variable, but can resolve in days to weeks

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    constipation, feeling of needing to constantly pass stool, straining while passing stool, hard stools, pain in the lower left abdomen
    Symptoms that always occur with opioid-related constipation:
    constipation
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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  5. 5.Hypothyroidism

    Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped organ inside the neck, no longer produces adequate levels of hormones. Thyroid hormones are essential for many bodily functions including breathing, heart rate, and metabolism.

    Most cases of hypothyroidism require lifelong hormone replacement therapy.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  6. 6.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.

    IBS is a chronic condition that may last for years, but it is not life-threatening and does not damage the bowels or lead to more serious illnesses.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, constipation, stool changes
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Diverticulosis

    Diverticulosis is a condition where small pouches bulge outward through the large intestine (colon). It increases with age, with up to 50% of people over the age of 60 having developed it. Most people don't have symptoms. Eating fiber is shown to reduce the risk of diverticulosis, with vegetarians reducing their risk by half.

    Diverticulosis does not typically go away; however, the risk of complications can be reduced with a better diet

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    stomach bloating, diarrhea, constipation, flatulence, incomplete evacuation of stools
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  8. 8.Lactose Intolerance

    Lactose intolerance is the inability to fully digest a sugar (lactose) in milk. This results in discomfort, gas, and maybe even stool changes shortly after ingesting a dairy product.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), stomach bloating, constipation, diarrhea
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  9. 9.Premenstrual Syndrome

    Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a very common condition. PMS has a variety of symptoms including cramping, mood swings, food cravings, fatigue, irritability, breast tenderness & depression.

    Symptoms of premenstrual syndrome can last all the way into menopause.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    stomach bloating, anxiety, constipation, depressed mood, breast pain
    Symptoms that never occur with premenstrual syndrome:
    constant sadness, severe sadness, disapearance of periods for over a year
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment

Constipation Treatments and Relief

Any lasting change in the way you move your bowels or any blood in the stool needs to be evaluated and colon and rectal cancer ruled out, especially now that everyone is more at risk [4, 11].

Again, if you have nausea, vomiting, severe abdominal pain or a fever accompanied by constipation, you should see a doctor, who can test for blockage of the bowel or other serious disorders that can be causing your discomfort.

Treatments for both acute and chronic constipation symptoms include:

  • Increasing your fluid intake [1]
  • Eating lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains[2]
  • Using an OTC fiber supplement, such as Metamucil, glucomannan, or psyllium fiber[9]
  • Over-the-counter stool softeners such as Colace or Surfak
  • Laxatives such as Milk of Magnesia or Lactulose
  • Enemas: these are more potent than anything you take by mouth to relieve constipation

FAQs About Constipation

Here are some frequently asked questions about constipation.

What causes constipation?

Constipation is due to slow or irregular movement of stool through the lower gastrointestinal tract and can be short-term or chronic [1, 2, 3]. There are many causes to constipation, including changes in diet, such as reduced fiber or liquids, decreased exercise or activities, medications, pregnancy, aging, disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, and several systemic diseases.

Can constipation cause pain?

Constipation can be associated with pain either associated with straining or passing hard stool during bowel movements, abdominal distension, or, most worrisome, when the intestines are completely blocked[1, 2].

Why am I constipated?

This is the same as the first question.

How often should I poop?

There is a wide range in the normal frequency of bowel movements. Depending on age, activity, diet, and individual variability, one–three bowel movements a day to as few as three per week can be normal. Constipation is fewer than three bowel movements per week [10].

What can constipation cause?

Constipation can result in a variety of other problems. Severe straining of hard stools can result in a tear to the anus or hemorrhoids. Severe constipation can cause impacted or retained hard stool, rectal prolapse where the rectum slips out of the anus and rarely poor blood flow to the or bowel perforation [1, 10].

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Constipation

  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Q.After passing stool, do you feel like you still have to go?
  • Q.Have you had any changes in your weight?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our constipation symptom checker to find out more.

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Constipation Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced constipation have also experienced:

    • 11% Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)
    • 6% Stomach Bloating
    • 6% Nausea
  • People who have experienced constipation had symptoms persist for:

    • 32% Less Than a Week
    • 29% Over a Month
    • 15% Less Than a Day
  • People who have experienced constipation were most often matched with:

    • 60% Chronic Constipation
    • 20% Constipation From Not Eating Enough Fiber
    • 20% Constipation Resulting From Dehydration
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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References

  1. Constipation. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated February 12, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
  2. Constipation. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. NIDDK Link.
  3. Faruqi U, Lynch J, Husada G. Constipation: Take It Seriously. BMJ Case Reports. 2014;2014:bcr201320228. NCBI Link.
  4. Conrad Stoppler M. Colon Cancer (Colorectal Cancer). MedicineNet.com. Updated February 5, 2018. MedicineNet.com Link.
  5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. NIDDK Link.
  6. Self-Help Steps to Get Through Hemorrhoid Flare-Ups. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Published July 2013. Harvard Health Publishing Link.
  7. Xu F, Mahadevan U. Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Office on Women's Health. Updated August 20, 2018. OWH Link.
  8. Symptoms & Causes of Celiac Disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. NIDDK Link.
  9. Constipation. Cancer.Net. Published January 2016. Cancer.Net Link.
  10. Constipation. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link.
  11. Study Finds Sharp Rise in Colon Cancer and Rectal Cancer Rates Among Young Adults. American Cancer Society. Published February 28, 2017. American Cancer Society Link.