What is constipation?

Constipation happens when your stools are infrequent or difficult to pass. Signs it could be something more serious include dehydration, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can cause constipation, diabetes, lupus, and thyroid issues.
Constipation happens when your stools are infrequent or difficult to pass. Signs it could be something more serious include dehydration, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can cause constipation, diabetes, lupus, and thyroid issues.

Constipation is a symptom and not a disease or disorder itself. Constipation happens when your stools are infrequent or difficult to pass and it is the most common digestive issue affecting Americans.

Signs and symptoms of constipation

By definition, you have constipation if you go three or more days without passing a stool. You may also have constipation if you go to the bathroom regularly but your stools are dry, hard, and difficult to pass. You may also have symptoms like:

What causes constipation?

Since constipation may be a sign that there is something more serious wrong, it is important to figure out why you are constipated. Some common causes include:

  • Dehydration – When you don’t drink enough water, your stool is dry and hard, making it more difficult to pass.
  • Diet – A healthy diet is important for good digestion. You can have constipation from eating processed foods and not getting enough fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise – If you don’t get up and move around enough it can slow the passage of your stool through your body, allowing it to harden. 
  • Medication and supplements – Many prescriptions and supplements can contribute to constipation. 
  • Digestion issues – Other digestive conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can cause constipation. By treating these conditions, you will also address the symptom of constipation. 
  • Health conditions – Diabetes, lupus, and thyroid issues also cause constipation.

How is constipation diagnosed?

Occasional constipation isn’t a major health concern, but if you are frequently constipated it is important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms. To diagnose your constipation your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms. You may need to see a specialist like a gastroenterologist. Additional tests include: 

  • Physical exam – Your doctor will use a gloved finger to feel the inner muscles of your anus to make sure there are no obvious issues.
  • X-ray – Your doctor will have you drink a fluid called barium that will coat the inside of your digestive tract or give you an enema to coat your colon. An X-ray will then reveal any places that you have blockages, enlargements, or restrictions.
  • Colonoscopy – Using a light and camera your doctor can examine your small intestine for bleeding, inflammation, ulcers, and other growths that may impact your ability to pass a stool. 
  • Sigmoidoscopy – Similar to a colonoscopy, your doctor will examine your large intestine to see if any contributing factors are causing your constipation.
  • Colorectal transit study – After swallowing capsules with special markers in them, your doctor will take X-rays over a week to see how they pass through your digestive tract.

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When to see your doctor

If you become dependent on laxatives or suppositories to pass a stool, talk to your doctor. Similarly, if you bleed when you pass a stool, it is important to talk to your doctor. Frequent constipation can cause other health issues or stretch the muscles in your lower intestine, worsening your condition. 

Since other conditions like diabetes, lupus, and thyroid issues cause constipation, your doctor may request additional blood work and tests. Then he can pinpoint a reason for your otherwise unexplained constipation and treat your other medical condition.

Treatments for constipation

There are many treatments for constipation, and some include preventative measures you can take by making improvements to your diet and exercise habits. Supplements like fiber, magnesium, and probiotics can help with digestion.

Always talk to your doctor about your symptoms before beginning any treatment. If you can’t improve your constipation alone, your doctor can help.

Medication

If you are being treated for another health condition, your medication may be to blame for your constipation. Your doctor can switch you to a new prescription to see if your symptoms improve. 

Similarly, if your constipation is a symptom of a health condition like IBS, your doctor may give you a prescription to help improve your bowel function .

Surgery

If diagnostic tests show that you have any deformities in the development of your colon or blockages causing constipation, surgery may help to improve your symptoms. 

Even if your constipation isn’t caused by a more serious medical condition, leaving it untreated is dangerous. Constipation can cause other health issues or permanently damage your colon and rectum.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/24/2021
References
American College of Gastroenterology: "Constipation and Defecation Problems."

Harvard Medical School: "Tips to avoid constipation."

Hopkins Medicine: "Constipation."

Kids Health: "Constipation."

University of California San Francisco: "Constipation."