7 Constipation Symptoms You Need to Know

Constipation is much more than just not being able to poop—it can come with a whole host of uncomfortable signs.

Everybody poops, but not everybody poops well. Constipation is a condition that means you're not having enough bowel movements a week, either in quantity, quality, or frequency. It can be quite uncomfortable and even frustrating, as you'll sometimes sit on the toilet knowing you need to poop but just can't seem to.

Constipation is common among all ages and populations in the U.S., and it may last for a short or long time. About 16 of every 100 adults have constipation, per the NIDDK, and the likelihood increases for adults over age 60.

You certainly wouldn't be alone in getting constipation every now and again. In fact, it's estimated that some 8 million people visit the hospital via ambulance due to constipation pain every year.

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Constipation Symptoms

While most symptoms of constipation aren't that severe, they're still largely uncomfortable—and downright annoying. Here's what you should know about the most common constipation symptoms and what you can do about them.

Infrequent Bowel Movements

Everybody has a different poop schedule. It might be once a day, a few times a day, or once every couple of days. But if you haven't had at least three bowel movements in a week, that's when healthcare providers start to consider you as having constipation.

If you had to aim for a healthy "target," having one poop a day that is both the size and consistency of a large banana is good, said Elana Maser, MD, assistant professor of gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and gastroenterologist at the Feinstein IBD Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

If you're a larger person or you eat a lot, you might have more like two of those a day.

Straining

If pooping isn't near-effortless, and instead you're finding yourself bearing down, rocking back and forth, pushing, or otherwise straining in order to have a bowel movement, there's a good chance you're constipated.

If you're backed up, attempting to use your muscles to push out stool is a natural response, said Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

For some people, continued straining can lead to problems with leaking urine and developing urinary incontinence over time, Dr. Bedford said.

Bloating

You know that feeling when your stomach just feels distended and full? That's bloating—and it can be a sign of constipation. The reason is because the stool ends up blocking air in your digestion, according to Dr. Maser.

"If you don't have a complete evacuation of stool, you're going to get air buildup in front of that stool," Dr. Maser said.

The good news: Once you manage to have a full bowel movement, that feeling should subside, since the air will be able to move through your system.

Hard, Lumpy Stools

As digested food moves through your colon, the colon absorbs the water content from your food. Again, remember the goal is for a soft, banana-sized and textured bowel movement. If your digestion is moving slowly, the colon can absorb too much water, leading to hard, lumpy stools.

The stool you do manage to pass may also start looking like round little deer poops. "If you start to see lumps stuck together or just small kibble-sized stools, you're getting to more severe constipation," Dr. Maser said.

If they're in your colon long enough, these hard, lumpy stools can clump together and grow in thickness, making them difficult to pass, said Dr. Bedford, since your colon can expand larger more comfortably than the rectal muscles can.

In especially severe cases, that can lead to fecal impaction—where you won't be able to pass the stool on your own and will require a healthcare provider's help.

Feeling Like You Don't Poop Everything Out

So you're on the toilet, and you manage to poop, but you just feel like you're not getting everything out. That's constipation, too.

And there's a good chance it's because there is still more stool to pass in the last part of the colon called the sigmoid colon, which is attached to the rectum.

It is possible, for some people who are having normal bowel movements or who are dealing with diarrhea, that a bowel movement will feel incomplete even though there's no more stool to pass.

There's a special term for this, called tenesmus, and it most often occurs with inflammatory diseases or motility disorders that affect the movement of the intestines.

But for people experiencing constipation, the feeling of still needing to go once you've already passed some stool is usually because you're still backed up.

Flatulence

According to Dr. Maser, if you notice you're passing gas more often than usual—and especially if it smells particularly bad—it might be related to constipation. As for why it happens, there are two schools of thought. "There's the mechanical, and there's the bacterial overgrowth theory," Dr. Maser explained.

Basically, your gas could smell worse because, just like with bloating, air is getting trapped in your stomach, surrounded by poop, which just makes the air smell more before it's passed.

The other theory is that backed-up stool causes bacterial overgrowth. That bacteria produces gas, and sometimes it's smelly gas. It might also be one of the reasons people get bloated.

Needing Help To Have a Bowel Movement

If you find yourself pressing down on your stomach or shifting positions in order to help yourself poop, or even using your fingers to help extract stool from your bowel, that's definitely a sign of constipation.

If you're going as far as to use your hands, you're probably closer to the "extreme" side of constipation, said Dr. Maser, which is still not entirely uncommon.

How To Prevent Constipation

The most effective thing you can do to ease constipation symptoms is to have a complete bowel movement and then work on habits that might help prevent you from getting constipated again in the future.

Dietary Habits

Dietary changes that can help prevent constipation include:

  • Eat more fiber-rich foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains).
  • Avoid processed and prepared foods (snacks, frozen meals), which tend to be low in fiber.
  • Drink plenty of water, especially as you increase fiber intake.
  • Add prunes to your diet, which studies show can relieve constipation better than psyllium fiber.

One thing to remember: While fiber is helpful in preventing constipation, it can sometimes make you even more uncomfortable if you're already constipated.

"Fiber requires a lot of water intake, and if you don't take in enough water, the fiber can harden and be even more difficult to pass," Dr. Maser said.

Adults should get at least 25 to 34 grams of fiber a day, depending on age and sex, yet most people get significantly less than that.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle factors like the timing of bathroom breaks and your posture on the toilet can also help promote bowel movements to prevent constipation.

First and foremost, never ignore your body's signals to have a bowel movement (the defecation reflex). Doing so can decrease the signals over time and make constipation worse.

Schedule toilet times after meals when your bowels are most active. Eating triggers peristalsis—wave-like muscle contractions that start in the esophagus and run through the digestive tract promoting the transit of food and waste. This can help you pass stool with less effort.

How you sit on the toilet can also make it easier to poop. Raise your knees by using a footstool, like the Squatty Potty. This puts your body into a squat-like position, straightening the angle between the anal canal and the rectum and helping the bowels empty faster and more completely.

Moving your body can also help you move your bowels. Studies show gentle exercises like walking or QiGong help to relieve constipation.

How To Treat Constipation Symptoms

Constipation can usually be treated from home with dietary changes or medication.

Drink Water or Coffee

To relieve your current constipation, a big glass of water or a cup of coffee can help get your system moving, Dr. Bedford said. "Caffeine itself will stimulate abdominal muscles and squeezing and may help people to eliminate," Dr. Bedford explained.

Take a Laxative

If these things don't work, over-the-counter laxatives are an option. Your healthcare provider can help you determine which type of laxative may be best for you.

Laxative options include:

  • Fiber supplements (Citrucel, FiberCon, Metamucil)
  • Osmotic agents (Miralax, milk of magnesia)
  • Stool softeners (Colace, Docusate)
  • Lubricants, such as mineral oil (Fleet)
  • Stimulants (Correctol, Dulcolax)

Both Dr. Bedford and Dr. Maser recommended using laxatives when you're constipated, but to use them sparingly. They both suggested that osmotic agents, like Miralax, can be effective. These types of laxatives help keep water in the stool, which makes them easier to pass.

But it's important not to overuse laxatives, as they can actually make constipation worse when used too frequently. Stimulant laxatives in particular can cause dependency over time, Dr. Maser said.

Stimulant laxatives cause the intestines to contract, and they should only be used if your constipation is severe or other treatments have not worked.

Changes in Medication May Be Necessary

If dietary and lifestyle changes plus occasional OTC laxatives still aren't helping, talk to your healthcare provider about the medications you're on. Medications and supplements are a major culprit behind constipation, Dr. Bedford said.

Iron pills, calcium and aluminum reflux tablets like Tums, the anti-nausea medicine Zofran, depression medications, allergy medications like Benadryl, and pain medications including opiates all can cause constipation, Dr. Bedford said.

If that's the case, your healthcare provider can help you come up with a routine that allows you to take any necessary medicines while still keeping your bowel movements healthy.

A Quick Review

Constipation is the common issue of having fewer than three bowel movements in a week. The delayed or infrequent passage of stool can lead to hard and lumpy stools, straining, a feeling that you didn't get all the stool out, bloating, and gas.

To help relieve constipation symptoms: drink plenty of water, get regular exercise, and only take laxatives sparingly. After you've successfully gotten your system moving again, try incorporating some gut-healthy lifestyle changes into your routine, like eating plenty of fiber.

If your constipation is ongoing, your healthcare provider can help guide you with strategies to get things moving again.

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Sources
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