Constipation is most often defined as having a bowel movement less than 3 times per week. It is often associated with hard stools or problems passing stools. You may have pain while passing stools or may be unable to have a bowel movement after straining or pushing.
Normal bowel movements are different for each person. Some people do not have a bowel movement every day. Also, some healthy people always have very soft stools. Other have firm stools, but are able to pass them without problems.
When you do not have frequent bowel movements, or it takes a lot of effort to pass stool, you have constipation. Passing large, wide, or hard stools may tear the anus, especially in children. This can cause bleeding and may lead to an anal fissure.
Constipation is most often caused by:
- Low-fiber diet
- Lack of physical activity
- Not drinking enough water
- Delay in going to the bathroom when you have the urge to move your bowels
Stress and travel can also contribute to constipation or other changes in bowel habits.
Other causes of constipation may include:
- Colon cancer
- Diseases of the bowel, such as irritable bowel syndrome
- Mental health disorders
- Nervous system disorders
- Underactive thyroid
- Use of certain medications
Constipation in children often occurs if they hold their bowel movements. This may happen when the child is not ready for toilet training or is afraid of it.
Lifestyle changes can help you avoid constipation. These changes can also be used to treat it.
Things you can do include:
- Drink plenty of fluids each day (drink at least 8 glasses of water every day).
- Eat a lot of high fiber-foods.
- Exercise regularly.
- Use the toilet when you feel the urge. Do not wait.
For infants with constipation:
- Over 2 months old: Try 2 to 4 ounces of fruit juice (grape, pear, apple, cherry, or prune) twice a day.
- Over 4 months old: If the baby has started to eat solid foods, try baby foods with high-fiber content such as peas, beans, apricots, prunes, peaches, pears, plums, and spinach twice a day.
Regular exercise may also help establish regular bowel movements. If you are confined to a wheelchair or bed, change position often. Also do abdominal exercises and leg raises. A physical therapist can recommend exercises that you can do.
Stool softeners (such as those containing docusate sodium) may help. Bulk laxatives such as psyllium may help add fluid and bulk to the stool. Suppositories or gentle laxatives, such as milk of magnesia liquid, may help you have regular bowel movements.
Enemas or stimulant laxatives should only be used in severe cases. These methods should be used only if fiber, fluids, and stool softeners do not provide enough relief.
Do NOT give laxatives or enemas to children without first asking your doctor.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your doctor right away if you have sudden constipation with abdominal cramps and you cannot pass gas or stool. Do NOT take any laxatives.
Also call your doctor if you have:
- Been using laxatives for several weeks or self care is not working
- Blood in your stool
- Constipation alternating with diarrhea
- Rectal pain
- Sharp or severe abdominal pain, especially if you also have bloating
- Thin, pencil-like stools
- Unexplained weight loss
Call your child's doctor right away if:
- An infant (except those who are only breastfed) goes 3 days without a stool and is vomiting or irritable
Also call your child's doctor if:
- An infant younger than 2 months is constipated
- Non-breastfeeding infants go 3 days without having a bowel movement (call immediately if there is vomiting or irritability)
- A child is holding back bowel movements to resist toilet training
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your doctor will perform a physical exam. You will be asked questions such as:
- How long have you had constipation?
- How many days do you go between two bowel movements?
- Is constipation worse when you are stressed?
- What is the color, shape, and consistency of your stools? Is there bleeding?
- Do you have any abdominal pain?
- What surgeries or injuries have you had?
- What medicines do you take?
- Do you drink coffee or alcohol? Do you smoke?
- Do you have other symptoms?
The following tests may help find the cause of constipation:
Irregularity of bowels; Lack of regular bowel movements
Camilleri M. Disorders of gastrointestinal motility. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds.Goldman's Cecil Medicine
Lembo AJ, Ullman SP. Constipation. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Sleisenger MH, eds.Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease
Update Date 8/11/2014
Updated by: Jenifer K. Lehrer, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Frankford-Torresdale Hospital, Aria Health System, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.