Many times constipation can be treated with over-the-counter remedies.
Constipation is most often caused by a low-fiber diet, lack of exercise, dehydration, or delay in going to the bathroom when you have the urge to defecate. Stress and travel can also contribute to constipation or other changes in bowel habits.
Other times, diseases of the bowel (such as irritable bowel syndrome), pregnancy, certain medical conditions (like an underactive thyroid or cystic fibrosis), mental health problems (such as depression), neurological diseases, metabolic disorders, or medications may cause constipation. More serious causes, like colon cancer, are not common.
More women than men seek help for constipation, suggesting that a hormonal imbalance may play a role.
Among the medications that can cause constipation are:
Some pain medications:
Constipation in children often occurs if they hold back bowel movements when they are not ready for toilet training, or are afraid of it.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination, which may include a rectal exam, and a pelvic exam if you are a woman. The doctor will check your medications to make sure they are not causing constipation and may run several tests to diagnose underlying illness. The following tests may help diagnose the cause of constipation:
Avoiding constipation is easier than treating it but involves the same lifestyle measures.
Your doctor may suggest other alternatives.
Most mild cases of acute constipation can be treated with over-the-counter laxatives. However, these medications are only designed for short-term use. You can often prevent or treat chronic constipation with a combination of changes in your diet (like eating more fiber), drinking more water, and getting enough exercise. Your health care provider may talk with you about your bowel habits. For example, if you consistently delay going to the bathroom when you feel the urge, you could make constipation worse. Your doctor may ask you to use a laxative or stool softener or suggest a bulk-forming agent, such as psyllium, bran, or methylcellulose. In addition, certain herbs may help promote bowel activity. Use laxative herbs with caution because, like medications, they may become less effective if you use them constantly.
Studies support the use of biofeedback for obstructive constipation. One study found that obstructive constipation was corrected in 79% of people who received biofeedback compared to only 4% of those who received placebo treatment.
Getting enough fiber in your diet (20 to 35g per day) helps prevent constipation. Vegetables, fresh fruits (especially dried fruits) and whole grains, including wheat and bran, or oatmeal cereals, are excellent sources of fiber. To reap the benefits of fiber, you must drink plenty of fluids (especially water) to help pass the stool. If adding more fiber to your diet causes gas or bloating, try adding fiber gradually.
Regular exercise also helps maintain good bowel movements. Even if you are in a wheelchair or bed, you can change position frequently and perform abdominal contraction exercises and leg raises. A physical therapist can recommend a program of exercises that's right for you.
Additional tips include:
Your doctor may recommend a laxative to relieve temporary constipation. However, you should not use laxatives to treat chronic constipation. Many laxatives are available, both over the counter and by prescription. Laxatives can interact with a number of medications, so talk to your doctor before taking one if you also take other medications.
Bulk-forming laxatives. Often prescribed first for constipation, they can work as quickly as 12 hours after use. They swell in the intestines, softening the stool and making it easier to pass. Bulk-forming laxatives are made of indigestible fiber and are safe for long-term use, but you must take them with enough water or they can cause obstructions in the intestines. In some people they may cause bloating and abdominal pain. Bulk-forming laxatives include those made from psyllium (Metamucil, Fiberall), methylcellulose (Citrucel), and polycarbophil (FiberCon).
Stimulant laxatives. Work by causing the muscles in the intestines to contract, moving the stool along. They are designed for short-term use and can cause dehydration and problems with the body's electrolyte balance. Stimulant laxatives include Dulcolax, Correctol, Ex-Lax, castor oil, Senna, and Senokot.
Osmotic laxatives. Increase the amount of water in your intestines, making stool softer. They can be quick acting, but they can cause loss of fluids and electrolytes. Osmotic laxatives include lactulose (Cephulac), available by prescription, and polyethelyne glycol (MiraLAX); and saline laxatives, such as magnesium citrate and milk of magnesia.
Stool softeners. Often recommended after surgery, these laxatives make the stool softer. They are generally used in combination with stimulant laxatives, and can take 3 days to work.
Lubricant laxatives. Coat the stool and help it move through the intestine. The most common lubricant laxative is mineral oil. Mineral oil can have side effects; if it is accidentally aspirated (breathed in), it can cause pneumonia.
Suppositories. Suppositories, which are inserted into the rectum, may make it easier to pass hard stools (glycerin suppositories) or they can be a stimulant laxative that is absorbed into the body (Dulcolax suppositories).
Enemas. Saline enemas work like osmotic laxatives, while mineral oil enemas work like lubricant laxatives. You should not use enemas on a regular basis; they can cause electrolyte imbalances.
Tegaserod (Zelnorm). A prescription drug used to treat constipation in people with IBS. Because of an increased risk of cardiac problems (including heart attack and stroke), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricts the use of Zelnorm to people who have found other treatments unsafe or ineffective.
Never give laxatives or enemas to children unless instructed by your doctor. People with any kind of bowel obstruction, abdominal inflammation, or kidney or heart failure should never take over-the-counter laxatives without talking to their physician.
Adding more fiber to your diet and drinking adequate water usually helps relieve constipation. It is important to take any fiber supplement with plenty of water to avoid intestinal obstruction.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
Herbs used for constipation fall into two categories: bulk-forming laxatives and stimulant laxatives.
Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) contains soluble fiber and is available as a powder or as whole or crushed seeds, which can be mixed with water or juice. Flaxseed is different from flaxseed oil, which is not used for constipation.
Other bulk-forming laxatives include:
Stimulant laxatives can cause pain, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances, as well as interfere with other medications. Speak with a knowledgable practitioner.
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of constipation based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
Constipation is common in pregnancy and is usually relieved by making dietary changes and drinking more water. If you are pregnant, do not take any herbs or over-the-counter laxatives that are stimulant laxatives because they might cause contractions. In fact, you should talk to your doctor before using any laxative if you are pregnant.
Prognosis and Complications
Passing large, wide stools may tear the mucosal membrane of the anus, especially in children. This can cause bleeding and the possibility of an anal fissure.
Basch E, Bent S, Collins J, Dacey C, Hammerness P, Harrison M, et al.; Natural Standard Resource Collaboration. Flax and flaxseed oil (Linum usitatissimum): a review by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. J Soc Integr Oncol. 2007 Summer;5(3):92-105. Review.
Bope & Kellerman: Conn's Current Therapy 2013. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:Ch.1.
Bouchoucha M, Hejnar M, Devroede G, Boubaya M, Bon C, Benamouzig R. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome and constipation are more depressed than patients with functional constipation. Dig Liver Dis. 2014;46(3):213-8.
Bouras, EP. Chronic constipation in the elderly. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2009 Sep;38(3):463-80.
Chang JY, Locke GR, Schleck CD, Zinsmeister AR, Talley NJ. Risk factors for chronic constipation and a possible role of analgesics. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2007;19(11):905-11.
Chmielewska A, Szajewska H. Systematic review of randomized controlled trials: probiotics for functional constipation. World J Gastroenterol. 2010 Jan 16(1):69-75.
Culbert TP. Integrative approaches to childhood constipation and encopresis. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2007 Dec;54(6):927-47.
DePaula JA, Carmuega E, Weill R. Effect of ingestion of symbiotic yogurt on the bowel habits of women with functional constipation. Acta Gastroenterol Latinoam. 2008;38(1):16-25.
Eutamene H, Bueno L. Role of probiotics in correcting abnormalities of colonic flora induced by stress. Gut. 2007 Nov;56(11):1495-7.
Huang CH, Su YC, Li TC, Lee SC, Lin JS, Chiu TY, Lue HC. Treatment of constipation in long-term care with Chinese herbal formula: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Jul;17(7):639-46.
Johanson JF. Review of the treatment options for chronic constipation. MedGenMed. 2007 May 2;9(2):25. Review.
Kaçmaz Z, Kasiçi M. Effectiveness of bran supplement in older orthopaedic patients with constipation. J Clin Nurs. 2007 May;16(5):928-36.
Kiefte-de Jong JC, de Vries JH, Escher JC, et al. Role of dietary patterns, sedentary behaviour and overweight on the longitudinal development of childhood constipation: the Generation R study. Matern Child Nutr. 2013;9(4):511-23.
Lacy BE, Levenick J, Crowell M. Recent advances in the management of difficult constipation. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2012;14(4):306-12.
Lämås K, Lindholm L, Stenlund H, Engström B, Jacobsson C. Effects of abdominal massage in management of constipation -- a randomized controlled trial. Int J Nurs Stud. 2009;46(6):759-67.
Larkin PJ, Sykes NP, Centeno C, Ellershaw JE, Elsner F, Eugene F, Eugene B, Gootjes JR, Nabal M, Noguera A, Ripamonti C, Zucco F, Zuurmond WW. The management of constipation in palliative care: clinical practice recommendations. Pallat Med. 2008;22(7):796-807.
Lembo AJ, Schneier HA, Shiff SJ, Kurtz CB, MacDougall JE, Jia XD, Shaho JZ, Lavins BJ, Currie MG, Fitch DA, Jeglinski BI, Eng P, Fox SM, Johnston JM. Two randomized trials of linaclotide for chronic constipation. N Engl J Med. 2011;365(6):527-36.
Nellesen D, Chawla A, Oh DL, Weissman T, Lavins BJ, Murray CW. Comorbidities in patients with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation or chronic idiopathic constipation: a review of the literature from the past decade. Postgrad Med. 2013;125(2):40-50.
Pagano G, Tan EE, Haider JM, Bautista A, Tagliati M. Constipation is reduced by beta-blockers and increased by dopaminergic medications in Parkinson's disease. Parkinsonism Relat Disord. 2015;21(2):120-5.
Paré P, Bridges R, Champion MC, Ganguli SC, Gray JR, Irvine EJ, et al. Recommendations on chronic constipation (including constipation associated with irritable bowel syndrome) treatment. Can J Gastroenterol. 2007 Apr;21 Suppl B:3B-22B. Review.
Power AM, Talley NJ, Ford AC. Association between constipation and colorectal cancer: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108(6):894-903.
Riezzo G, Orlando A, D'Attoma B, et al. Randomised clinical trial: efficacy of Lactobacillus paracasei-enriched artichokes in the treatment of patients with functional constipation -- a double-blind, controlled, crossover study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2012;35(4):441-50.
Sairanen U, Piirainen L, Nevala R, Korpela R. Yoghurt containing galacto-oligosaccharides, prunes and linseed reduces the severity of mild constipation in elderly subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007;61(12):1423-8.
Satish S.C.R. Constipation: Evaluation and Treatment of Colonic and Anorectal Motility Disorders. Gastroenterology Clinics. 2007;36(3).
Wald A. Chronic constipation: advances in management. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2007 Jan;19(1):4-10. Review.
Wang X, Yin J. Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Chronic Constipation. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:396.
Woodward S, Norton C, Chiarelli P. Biofeedback for treatment of chronic idiopathic constipation in adults. Cochrane Databse Syst Rev. 2014;3:CD008486.
Xu X, Zheng C, Zhang M, Wang W, Huang G. A randomized controlled trial of acupuncture to treat functional constipation: design and protocol. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2014;14:423.
Youssef NN. Childhood and Adolescent Constipation: Review and Advances in Management. Curr Treat Options Gastroenterol. 2007 Oct;10(5):401-11.
Zuckerman MJ. The role of fiber in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: therapeutic recommendations. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2006 Feb;40(2):104-8. Review.