Why Am I Constipated?

Learn what causes constipation and 5 tips to find relief

Woman holds her stomach, experiencing constipation symptoms.

Learn what causes constipation and 5 tips to find relief

When you have to go, you have to go. But when you can’t, you’re not alone. Constipation – defined as infrequent bowel movement or hard-to-pass stool – is a common digestive complaint.

Usually, constipation is a short-term problem that can be fixed with some home care remedies.

Problems arise when constipation becomes frequent. About 16 percent of US adults have chronic constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Women and older adults are especially at risk for having chronic constipation.

Long-lasting constipation can lead to other complications, such as hemorrhoids or fecal impaction, which happens when hardened stool gets stuck to the colon or rectum and prevents passage. This condition occurs most often with children and older adults and is remedied most commonly by an enema.

“Contact your primary care doctor if frequent constipation is interfering with your daily life and home remedies are not working,” says Anhthu Tran, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Oceanside.“Constipation is not a disease, but it may be a sign of an underlying condition such as a gastrointestinal problem.”

What causes constipation?

Constipation can be triggered by many things, including certain medications, poor bowel habits, low-fiber diets, overuse of laxatives and hormonal disorders. Other causes include problems with the colon or rectum, such as intestinal obstruction, irritable bowel syndrome, or diverticulosis, and high levels of estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of constipation?

Constipation is defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week, and severe constipation is defined as having less than one bowel movement per week. However, people can have different bowel movement patterns.

Other symptoms of constipation include:

  • Straining when going to the bathroom
  • Hard and/or small feces
  • Sense of incomplete evacuation after going to the bathroom
  • Lower abdomen discomfort
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Anal bleeding from trauma caused by hard feces

How to treat constipation

Most of the time constipation is not serious and can be managed with lifestyle changes or over-the-counter medication. But when it becomes a problem, most people aren’t comfortable talking about it. Most people don’t want to discuss their bowel habits.

“But not talking about it with your doctor can lead to bigger problems. A digestive problem is easier to deal with when caught early,” Dr. Tran says.

“Many digestive problems can be managed with lifestyle changes, such as eating more fiber, drinking more water and exercising more. So don’t be afraid to bring up a problem with constipation with your doctor,” Dr. Tran adds.

Five tips for constipation relief

Many digestive issues can be prevented and eliminated by making simple changes that last. Follow these tips to help prevent constipation:

1. Eat fiber to help you go

Fiber is the undigested parts of plant-based food and helps make the stool soft so that it moves smoothly through the colon. The best natural sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Prunes, or dried plums, are a rich source of insoluble fiber and can serve as a natural laxative. Take fiber supplements if necessary. 

2. Drink plenty of water

Water helps your body flush waste and toxins, and helps your colon eliminate waste, which prevents constipation. The amount of water you need every day may depend on numerous factors, such as activity level, geographic location and temperature.

3. Exercise regularly

Being sedentary is a risk factor for constipation. Daily physical activity can help your body’s digestive system move things along and eliminate waste. Try walking, cycling, swimming, using an elliptical trainer or hiking. If you do not have a lot of time to work out, even taking several 10- to 15-minute walks a day will help.

4. Don’t ignore the urge

When the urge comes, find a bathroom. If you repeatedly ignore the urge to have a bowel movement when you need to, it may lead to constipation. 

5. Evaluate your medications

Work with your physician and pharmacist to determine if there are drugs that you are taking that could be contributing to constipation. Talk with your doctor to determine if the medication can be discontinued or changed.