April 3rd, 2013 by Eduardo Krajewski, MD, FACS, FASCRS

It is an all too familiar feeling. You are uncomfortable and frustrated. You haven’t moved your bowels in days. Constipation is no fun, and it is very common. In this article we will look at:

  • What is constipation?
  • What causes it?
  • How can it be treated and prevented?
  • When should I see a doctor about it?

Defining Constipation

The definition is a little tricky since it varies from person to person. If you move your bowels at 6 a.m. every morning, then you might feel constipated if you haven’t visited the bathroom by noon. In general though, if you pass less than three stools per week, and if your stools are very hard and dry, then you are constipated.

Causes of Constipation

In the majority of cases, constipation is not serious and is only temporary. The lack of sufficient fiber and fluid in your diet is a very common cause. Also, the lack of exercise can lead to constipation. The change of your daily routine can also cause problems. This is why when travelling, many people become constipated.

Some people also ignore the urge to have a bowel movement, and this can lead to constipation. Many pregnant women also experience constipation especially later in their pregnancy. Finally, some medications, including herbal remedies, can cause the bowels to grind to a halt.

More serious causes of constipation can include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Laxative abuse
  • Stroke, diabetes, thyroid disorder, Parkinson’s disease
  • Intestinal obstruction, diverticulosis
  • Colon cancer or other cancers
  • Spinal cord injuries

Treatment of Constipation

The treatment depends on the cause. If you are experiencing mild, temporary symptoms, you might try increasing the fluid and fiber in your diet. Lots of fruits and veggies can do wonders for relieving constipation. Exercise, like waking for 15 to 30 minutes a day, can be a great help as well. Try to keep a regular schedule including regular sleep hours. These are all effective preventative measures also.

If these lifestyle and diet changes don’t work, then you can try stool softeners or laxatives. Some examples are:

  • Bowel stimulants: Correctal, Senokot, Dulcolax
  • Lubricants: mineral oil
  • Stool softeners: Colace
  • Osmotics: Sorbitol, Cephulac, Miralax
  • Saline laxatives: milk of magnesia

If there is a more serious cause of the constipation, the treatment must include treating the underlying condition.

In some persons with pelvic muscle disorders, biofeedback is used to retrain the muscles for better bowel control.

When to see a doctor

If you have not moved your bowels for over 3 days, it is a good idea to be evaluated by a physician. Also, there are certain warning signs that something more serious is going on. These symptoms might include:

  • Ongoing problems despite changes in diet and exercise
  • Severe pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • Blood in stool, upon wiping or in the toilet bowl
  • Alternating constipation and diarrhea (This is a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome.)
  • Thin, worm-like stools
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you have these symptoms then your doctor will order special tests to make a diagnosis. These tests might be a combination of blood tests, barium enema, CT scan, colonoscopy or other specialized diagnostic tests.


Constipation is very common, and in most circumstances easily treatable and preventable. In some cases, however, it can be a sign of more serious disease. If you have any of the warning signs, make sure you see a physician and have a complete evaluation.

Take a look around The H Doctor website. Here you will find the most current information about hemorrhoid treatment and other digestive health topics.

Make every day count.

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