Not sure if you’re “going” as often as you should? Feeling backed up, bloated and uncomfortable? If you find yourself answering yes to any of these questions, you might be constipated. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. More than 2 million people see a doctor each year for constipation.

Talking to your doctor about bowel movements (or lack thereof) can feel awkward. But your stool says a lot about your health, so it’s important to keep track of when you’re experiencing symptoms of constipation and how often. We’ll help you identify common causes of constipation and walk you through how to get relief.

Signs and symptoms of constipation

How often you need to poop is different for everybody, so the signs and symptoms of constipation can vary from person to person. But some of the most common signs of constipation include:

  • Fewer than three bowel movements a week
  • Dry, hard and/or lumpy stools that are hard to pass
  • Bloating, stomach ache or cramps
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy

If you experience mild symptoms of constipation once in a while, home remedies work well to alleviate the problem. But if you are experiencing constipation often or your symptoms are severe, you should schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor to discuss treatment options.

Constipation causes

When we look at the causes of constipation, it’s important to understand how the digestive system works. As food moves through the digestive tract, nutrients are absorbed – the partially digested food that remains becomes waste. After the waste moves from the small intestine into the large intestine, it ends up in the colon, which absorbs water from the waste, creating stool (or poop). Constipation happens when your colon absorbs too much water from your poop, drying it out and making it harder to pass.

Causes of constipation can vary from person to person. It could be a change in diet or routine, or an inadequate intake of water and fiber (a nutrient found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains that helps with digestion). But the three most common causes of constipation are often lifestyle, medicines and medical conditions.

Lifestyle causes of constipation

How we treat our bodies – and what we put into them – can often be the cause of constipation. From the foods you eat to your daily routine, constipation can be caused by lifestyle factors like:

  • Stress
  • Eating low-fiber foods
  • Immobility or not getting enough exercise
  • Not drinking enough water
  • Eating too much meat, milk or cheese
  • Changes to your routine (like traveling)
  • Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement

Medicine that can cause constipation

The medicine we take helps us feel better, but sometimes there are side effects. Constipation can be a side effect of some supplements and prescription medications, including:

  • Antidepressants
  • Strong pain medicines
  • Antacids
  • Iron pills
  • Allergy medicines/antihistamines
  • Seizure medicine
  • Antinausea medicine
  • Certain blood pressure medicines

If you’re experiencing chronic constipation, ask your doctor to do a medicine/supplement review. They may be able to adjust the dose or prescribe another medication to help you get relief. Do not stop taking your medications without talking to your doctor first.

Medical conditions that can cause constipation

Some medical conditions can be a cause of constipation. You may experience constipation symptoms with conditions like:

  • Endocrine problems such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, uremia or hypercalcemia
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Neurologic disorders (spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or stroke)
  • Lazy bowel syndrome
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Digestive tract defects
  • Pregnancy

How to relieve constipation

If you’re feeling constipated, you want relief fast – but it can be hard to figure out what treatment options are right for you. There are many ways to try to relieve constipation. Home remedies are often the best way to treat mild, irregular cases of constipation, while medication might be needed to treat more chronic cases.

Home remedies for constipation

Most cases of mild to moderate constipation can be treated at home but do require some lifestyle changes. Get relief by trying home remedies like:

  • Eating a healthy diet, including colon-friendly foods like fruits, veggies, prunes, bran cereal and whole grains
  • Avoiding high-fat foods like meat, cheese and eggs
  • Drinking plenty of water – start by adding 2-3 extra glasses a day
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages
  • Exercise regularly or incorporate more movement into your routine
  • Adjust how you sit on the toilet – try raising your feet, leaning back or squatting for easier bowel movements
  • Avoid prolonged straining and spending too much time on the toilet – keep your phone, favorite book or newspaper out of the bathroom

Medicines for constipation

When at-home remedies aren’t doing the trick, your doctor may prescribe medicine to help you get relief from constipation. Common constipation medicines include:

  • Over-the-counter laxatives or stool softeners
  • Prescription laxatives like lubiprostone (Amitiza), plecanatide (Trulance) and lactulose (Cephulac or Kristalose)
  • Serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine 4 receptors like prucalopride (Prudac or Motegrity)
  • Dietary supplements (magnesium or fiber)

How to cure constipation permanently

Although there is no way to cure constipation permanently, if you stick to a healthy diet, drink plenty of water and maintain an active lifestyle, you’ll be less likely to experience constipation.

Chronic constipation

If you’re consistently having bowel movements less than three times a week, you are experiencing chronic constipation. Chronic constipation can be a symptom of an underlying condition, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

The more information you can share with your doctor, the better. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the food you eat and how it impacts your bowel habits. And of course, make note of pain, bleeding, weight loss and other symptoms.

There are a variety of mobile apps out there to help you keep track of how often you poop and your overall gut health. Based on your bowel habits and symptoms, your doctor will work with you to come up with a treatment plan or refer you to a gastroenterology specialist.

When is constipation an emergency?

It’s important to get treatment for your constipation before it becomes an emergency. If constipation is not treated, it could cause serious complications such as hemorrhoids, anal fissures, rectal prolapse and more. Go to urgent care if you’re experiencing:

Get constipation relief

Talking to your doctor about constipation can feel awkward, but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Whether you’re curious if your bowel habits are normal, you’re dealing with chronic constipation or you might be experiencing an emergency, our clinicians are here to answer your questions, discuss treatment options and provide compassionate care.