Constipation means different things to different people. For many people, it simply means infrequent stools. For others, however, constipation means hard stools, difficulty passing stools (straining), or a sense of incomplete emptying after a bowel movement. The cause of each of these types of constipation probably is different, and the approach to each should be tailored to the specific type of constipation. Constipation can also alternate with diarrhea. This pattern is more commonly considered as part of the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). At the extreme end of the constipation spectrum is fecal impaction, a condition in which stool hardens in the rectum and prevents the passage of any stool.
The number of bowel movements generally decreases with age. Ninety-five percent of adults have bowel movements between three and 21 times per week, and this would be considered normal. The most common pattern is one bowel movement a day, but this pattern is seen in less than 50% of people. Moreover, most people are irregular and do not have bowel movements every day or the same number of bowel movements each day. Medically speaking, constipation usually is defined as fewer than three bowel movements per week. Severe constipation is defined as less than one bowel movement per week.
Common causes of constipation include pain medications (especially narcotics), dehydration, depression, stroke, diseases of the nervous system, diseases of the abdomen, colon cancer, travel, Hirschsprung's disease, and scleroderma.
Complications of constipation include hard stools, anal fissure, anal tears, rectal bleeding, hemorrhoids, abdominal discomfort, abdominal swelling, abdominal pain, bloating, and aggravation of hernias.
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.
Pictures, Images, Illustrations & Quizzes
Constipation: Foods to Eat, Foods to Avoid
Take this quiz to find out what foods to eat, and what foods to avoid to prevent or relieve constipation....
Digestive Disorders: Common Misconceptions
Learn about the digestive system and common misconceptions of digestive disorders. Read about what causes ulcers, heartburn,...
Diverticulitis (Diverticulosis) Symptoms, Diet, Treatment
Diverticulitis (diverticulosis) is a condition in which the diverticulum or diverticula rupture in the colon causing infection....
High-Fiber Super Foods: Whole Grains, Fruits, & More
Learn about high-fiber foods. From fresh fruits to whole grains, these fiber-rich foods can lower cholesterol, prevent...
How to Get Rid of Hemorrhoids: Types, Causes, and Treatments
Learn how to get rid of hemorrhoids, the difference between internal hemorrhoids and external hemorrhoids, what causes...
IBS - Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Symptoms, Diet, Treatment
What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? Learn about symptoms, causes, and foods that trigger IBS. Get lifestyle tips for managing...
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Quiz: Test Your Medical IQ
What are symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? Take this quiz and get quick facts on causes and treatment options for this...
Super Tips to Boost Digestive Health: Bloating, Constipation, and More
Upset stomach? Some foods may be the culprits, and bad habits may be to blame. Treat your body right with these simple nutrition...
Causes of Constipation
12 Foods to Eat to Relieve Constipation
Constipation is a common problem, and almost everyone has been constipated at one time or another. There are foods that can help...
15 Foods That Cause Constipation
Constipation or the decrease in frequency and/or difficulty in passing stools (bowel movements) can be caused by a variety...
Abdominal Adhesions (Scar Tissue)
Abdominal adhesions (scar tissue) bands of scar tissue that form between abdominal organs and tissues. Symptoms of abdominal...
Anal cancer, cancer located at the end of the large intestine, has symptoms that include anal or rectal bleeding, anal pain or...
An anal fissure is a small tear or cut in the skin lining of the anus. Pain and/or rectal bleeding during bowel movements are...
Botulism is an illness caused by a neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. There are three types of botulism:...
Cancer is a disease caused by an abnormal growth of cells, also called malignancy. It is a group of 100 different diseases, and...
Chagas Disease (American Trypanosomiasis or Kissing Bug Disease)
Chagas disease is an infection caused by the T. cruzi parasite. Symptoms of Chagas disease include rash, swollen lymph nodes,...
Colon cancer is a malignancy that arises from the inner lining of the colon. Most, if not all, of these cancers develop from...
Depression is an illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts and affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way one...
Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2)
Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. The two types of diabetes are...
Diverticulitis (Diverticulosis, Diverticular Disease)
Most people with diverticulosis have few if any symptoms at all. When people do experience signs and symptoms of diverticulosis...
Encopresis is a type of elimination disorder in which bowel movements are passed into places other than the toilet. Children with...
Hashimoto's Thyroiditis (Symptoms, Diet, Treatments, Pregnancy)
Hashimoto's thyroiditis or chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, is an autoimmune disorder causing inflammation of the thyroid gland....
Hirschsprung Disease (Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments)
Hirschsprung disease is an inherited condition that is present at birth (congenital) in which the nerves of parts of the large...
Hypothyroidism (Symptoms, Diet, Natural and Medical Treatments, Tests)
Hypothyroidism is any state in which thyroid hormone production is below normal. Normally, the rate of thyroid hormone...
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a GI (gastrointestinal) disorder with signs and symptoms that include abdominal pain, bloating,...
Jet lag (desynchonosis) is a temporary disorder that results from travel across time zones. Symptoms include anxiety,...
Migraine headache is a type of headache associated with a sensitivity to light, smells, or sounds, eye pain, severe pounding on...
Multiple myeloma is a form of cancer that develops in plasma cells, the white blood cells that make antibodies. Symptoms include...
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Life Expectancy
Multiple sclerosis or MS is an autoimmune disorder in which brain and spinal cord nerve cells become demyelinated. This damage...
There are many types of ovarian cancer, epithelial carcinoma is the most common. Women with a family history of ovarian cancer...
Ovarian Cysts (Causes, Signs, Symptoms, Treatment)
Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled, sac-like structures within an ovary. Symptoms of an ovarian cysts may be: Pain in the belly...
Parkinson's disease is a slowly progressive neurological disease characterized by a fixed inexpressive face, a tremor at rest,...
Pregnancy (Week By Week, Trimesters)
Signs and symptoms of pregnancy vary by stage (trimester). The earliest pregnancy symptom is typically a missed period, but...
Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease of the connective tissue. It is characterized by the formation of scar tissue (fibrosis) in...
Spinal Cord Injury: Treatments and Rehabilitation
When vertebrae are broken or dislocated, the result can cause traumatic injury to the spinal cord. A spinal cord injury can have...
Typhoid fever is an illness caused by the Salmonella typhi bacteria. The illness is contracted by ingesting the bacteria in...
Vaginal cancer is fairly uncommon. There are two types of vaginal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Risk...
Other Causes of Constipation
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter