Constipation is a common digestive problem that makes it difficult for you to have a bowel movement. Having a bowel movement is also called “passing stool.”
As the food you eat passes through your digestive tract, your body takes nutrients and water from the food. This process creates a stool, which is moved through your intestines with digestive tract muscle contractions (squeezing motions). If you are constipated, your bowel movements may be infrequent. Your stools may be very hard, making them so difficult to pass that you have to strain. Or you may feel like you still need to have a bowel movement even after you've had one.
Constipation is not a disease. Most people experience constipation at some point in their lives. Usually, it goes away and is not serious. If you have chronic (frequent) constipation, talk you your doctor. Chronic constipation may be a symptom of a problem with your diet or a health problem.
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The symptoms of constipation may include:
It’s different for every person. Not everyone has a bowel movement once a day. It's not true that you must have a daily bowel movement to be considered "regular." A normal range is anywhere between 3 times a day to 3 times a week. You may be getting constipated if you start having bowel movements much less often than you usually do, or if your stool becomes hard to pass.
The symptoms of constipation are the same for children as for adults. For some children, it is normal to pass stools as far apart as every few days. Whether your child is constipated or not depends on how often he or she normally passes stools and how easy this is to do. If your child’s stools are soft and easy to pass, don’t worry about a few days in between. If your child’s stools are hard and difficult to pass, your child is likely constipated.
Probably not. Most cases of constipation are easily treated at home by making some healthy lifestyle changes. However, talk to your family doctor if your symptoms are severe, or if:
Usually, constipation occurs when stool passes too slowly through your intestines. This causes the stool to become hard and dry. A number of things can cause your intestines to slow down, including:
Constipation in children is caused by many of the same things that cause adults to have it (see list above). For example, it is likely to happen when your child doesn't drink enough water, milk, or other fluids, or if your child doesn't eat a healthy diet that includes enough fiber.
Constipation may also begin when you switch your baby from breast milk or baby formula to whole cow's milk, and when you switch from baby food to solid food. Sometimes constipation happens after your child has been sick or has taken certain medicines. You should not be concerned if your child becomes constipated for a short period of time. Constipation is common in children and usually goes away on its own.
Young children who have chronic constipation often ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. Your child may not want to interrupt play, or may be afraid or embarrassed to ask a teacher or use a public restroom. When a child avoids bowel movements, stool builds up in the lower bowel. The stool becomes larger and harder. Passage of the stool can be painful and makes children want to avoid having a bowel movement even more.
Your doctor probably will do a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms. If you have frequent constipation, you can help your doctor by keeping a day-by-day record of your bowel movements. If you are a parent, you may want to keep a record of your child’s bowel movements. In the record, you should include:
Depending on the frequency and severity of your symptoms, your doctor may also want to do other tests, such as a rectal exam, blood tests, X-rays, or colonoscopy.
The treatment depends on what is causing your constipation. For most people, eating a healthy diet, getting enough fiber, exercising regularly, and drinking enough fluids are the keys to clearing up constipation.
It is suggested that men 50 years of age and younger consume at least 38 grams of fiber per day, while women 50 years of age and younger should consume at least 25 grams per day. To add fiber to your diet, choose or add fiber-rich foods to your diet. If you are adding fiber to your diet, start slowly and gradually increase the amount. This will help reduce gas and bloating. Make sure to drink plenty of water, also.
Foods rich in fiber include:
Fiber supplements can also be used:
In general, try to avoid laxatives. They aren't meant for long-term use. An exception to this is bulk-forming laxatives.
Bulk-forming laxatives work naturally to add bulk and water to your stools so that they can pass more easily through your intestines. Bulk-forming laxatives can be used every day. They include oat bran, psyllium (one brand: Metamucil), polycarbophil (one brand: FiberCon) and methylcellulose (one brand: Citrucel).
You must use bulk-forming laxatives daily for them to work. Follow the directions on the label. Start slowly and drink plenty of fluids. Gradually increase how much you use every 3 to 5 days (as your body gets used to it) until your stools are softer and easier to pass.
You can help bulk-forming laxatives taste better by mixing them with fruit juice.
You may notice some bloating, gas or cramping at first, especially if you start taking too much or increase the amount you're using too quickly. These symptoms should go away in a few weeks or less.
In general, only use mineral oil when your doctor recommends it, such as if you've just had surgery and shouldn't strain to have a bowel movement. Mineral oil shouldn't be used regularly. If it is used regularly, it can cause deficiencies of vitamins A, D, E and K.
Enemas aren't usually necessary to relieve constipation. It's better to let your body work naturally.
If you've used laxatives and enemas for a long time, your family doctor may suggest that you gradually reduce the use of them to give your body a chance to return to normal. You may have to retrain your body to go without laxatives or enemas. This means eating plenty of fiber, possibly using a bulk-forming laxative, drinking plenty of water, exercising and learning to give yourself time to have a bowel movement. Be patient. It may take many months for your bowels to get back to normal. Talk with your family doctor about any concerns you have.
Depending on the cause of your constipation, the severity of your symptoms, and the effectiveness of other treatments, your doctor may also recommend:
There are many things you can do to help your child:
Sometimes, constipation can lead to complications, especially if you have chronic (frequent) constipation. Possible complications include:
If you don’t seek treatment, these complications can become serious and may require surgery. Talk to your doctor right away if you notice blood or mucus in or on your stool, or if you are unable to pass any stool.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff