Signs of Constipation and When You Should See a Doctor

Each year, chronic constipation causes 2.5 million doctor visits, making it the most common digestive complication in the U.S. Constipation is increasingly common and can affect anyone, regardless of age or lifestyle. Symptoms can last weeks and become severe if not treated.

Key takeaways:

This is why it is important to be aware of the causes and effects of constipation so that you can seek immediate medical attention if necessary.

What is constipation?

Constipation is a term used to describe a range of digestive experiences, including infrequent bowel movements and hard, dry stools that are difficult to pass. Generally speaking, you may be constipated if you have fewer than three bowel movements a week and your stools are lumpy or hard. Some other common signs of constipation include straining, bloating, and cramps.

If these issues persist for several weeks or become severe and accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or rectal bleeding, then it is essential to seek medical advice from your doctor. Though, in most cases, constipation can be treated easily with changes in diet and lifestyle, it is better to prevent it than need to cure it.

Sometimes, constipation may develop periodically and go away with a few changes to your routine. In chronic constipation, this is not the case, and it occurs frequently and for a longer duration, up to several months. It is a condition more common in elderly individuals and is usually a secondary symptom of another condition.

Common causes of constipation

The typical causes of constipation include inadequate water and fiber intake, lack of physical activity, certain medications, lower bowel diseases, and ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement. There are multiple causes and usually a combination of factors that lead to becoming constipated.

Common causes of constipation include:

  • Aging
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of dietary fiber
  • Stress
  • Hormonal complications
  • Certain medications
  • Iron supplements
  • Aluminum and calcium based antacids
  • Pregnancy
Several causes can trigger constipation. Though constipation can be treated easily with changes in diet and lifestyle, it is better to prevent it by listening to your body’s cues. If discomfort persists, get medical help when needed.

Signs and symptoms of constipation

Constipation is a common yet uncomfortable digestive issue. Common signs of constipation include having fewer bowel movements than usual, stools that are hard or lumpy in consistency, straining or difficulty passing stools, and feeling as if you cannot empty your bowels after having a bowel movement.

Other signs of constipation may include:

  • Belly bloating
  • Hard and small stool
  • Feeling of fullness
  • Abdominal discomfort or cramping
  • Flatulence

Most of the time, constipation can be relieved temporarily with dietary changes such as increasing the amount of fiber in one’s diet or drinking more fluids; however, if constipation becomes severe or chronic, it is important to seek medical advice from your doctor.

Tips for at-home constipation relief

Home remedies are available to relieve discomfort and promote regularity in replacing hardened stools, including:

  1. Increase your fiber intake. Fiber can help to reduce or completely relieve your constipation symptoms. Fiber is naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables. It is recommended to eat at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber as a part of your daily diet.
  2. Exercise regularly. Activities such as walking, jogging, and swimming can help naturally move the digestive system by activating your abdominal muscles.
  3. Drink enough water. Water keeps stool soft and formed, allowing it to pass through the digestive tract easier.
  4. Take over-the-counter laxatives. Bulk-forming laxatives (Metamucil or Benefiber) have fiber in them, allowing your stool to move through the colon better. Hyperosmolar laxatives (Miralax or Lactulose) draw water into the colon, softening stool and allowing a bowel movement. Stimulant laxatives (Senna and Dulcolax) work by speeding up the movement of the colon, forcing movement.
  5. Use enemas or suppositories. Use these over-the-counter treatments with caution, as they need to be self-inserted into the rectum and can cause damage. These generally work the fastest, but they also pose the highest risk.

Depending on the cause of your constipation, different treatment methods at home may be needed to assist you back to regular, healthy bowel movements.

When to see a doctor for constipation

It is recommended to consult your doctor if you experience constipation for more than a few weeks, if you also have symptoms such as blood or abdominal pain alongside constipation, or if natural methods of relieving the condition are ineffective.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should seek help from your doctor:

  • Constipation lasting longer than three weeks
  • Severe or painful cramps or abdominal pain
  • Have blood in the stool or while wiping
  • Weight loss
  • Fevers
  • Weakness

Constipation is a common digestive problem and can present differently for everyone. It is important to watch for the signs of constipation and take action if you experience any of them.

If your constipation becomes regular or a chronic problem, your doctor may run tests to ensure there are no other concerns. Some of these tests include imaging tests like abdominal x-rays and CT scans to visualize the abdomen, looking for tumors or blockages.

Others may involve using cameras in an endoscopy procedure to take a closer look. During a colonoscopy, the doctor inserts a camera into your rectum, scopes out potential issues along the digestive tract, and looks for any existing blockages or complications in the colon. With this information, you and your doctor can decide on a treatment plan for constipation.

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