Do I Have Constipation?

You may be experiencing constipation if you have trouble passing stool on a regular basis or if particularly hard or dry stool is causing pain during your bowel movements. Women, especially older women, are generally more affected than men. While most bouts of constipation only last a few days, cases that persist should be checked out by a medical provider. Although not the most popular topic to discuss with your doctor, constipation is one of the most common conditions in the U.S. and chronic cases may be a symptom of more serious causes if not examined properly. Especially see a doctor if the stool you do pass contains blood or is very thin-shaped, if you experience severe pains in your stomach or rectum, if you are losing a lot of weight suddenly or if you can’t get rid of the constipation with simple remedies such as exercising more and eating more fibrous foods.

It’s not easy to generalize how often bowel movements should be made—the normal rate is different for every person. Just because you don’t pass stool every day also does not mean that you are constipated. A good rule-of-thumb is to make sure you pass stool at least once every 3 days. If you’re eating regularly, and stool remains in your colon for longer than that, it may be a safe move to see a doctor about it. Otherwise, constipation symptoms usually include a feeling of blockage in your rectum, feelings that you can’t “finish” a bowel movement (even after passing) and needing to push against your stomach with your hands or fingers just to get stool to pass.

Why Do I Have Constipation?

If there’s something in your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) that’s blocking the path or movement of food through the bowel, it is probably causing your constipation. Other common causes of constipation include a low-fiber diet, a particularly dehydrated diet, lack or reduction of physical activity and dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles (anismus). You also may incite the constipation by refusing to pass stool when your body gets the urge, so try to avoid doing this. Finally, patients who are chronically on pain medication that contains opiates (ie. Vicodin) are more prone to develop constipation as a result of this medication.  Temporary constipation may also occur when a person is traveling, is pregnant or is sick.

If you have a chronic condition like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), constipation over a long period of time might be a symptom. In these cases, it’s best to consult a doctor and maybe have a colonoscopy performed for closer examination. Other conditions that reportedly cause constipation are Parkinson’s disease, thyroid diseases and stroke.

How Do I Stop Constipation?

Most medical providers will advise against relying on self-prescribed laxatives to try and encourage regular bowel movements. Your body can become dependent on these medications, which would worsen the constipation in the long run. Simple adjustments to your diet and exercise routine can usually solve the problem, if the constipation is mild. Try to drinks a lot of fluid and eat foods high in fiber to avoid hard, dry or infrequent stools. If you must treat underlying causes, talk to your doctor about which procedures are necessary.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014