Why Can’t You Poop? Constipation Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Learn more about what is making you constipated and how to treat it.

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Are you having trouble keeping things moving? There are a couple of reasons why your bowel movements might be slow, such as traveling or not eating enough fiber. But there are treatment options available.

What Is Constipation?

The term constipation refers to difficulty passing stool. You may be experiencing infrequent bowel movements. The amount of bowel movements you have per day can vary with each person. But you may be constipated if you are having less than three bowel movements per week.

Being constipated can also mean that your stool is dry and hard, or that it is difficult to pass. You may also experience a feeling that not all stool has passed.

So if your bowel movements are more spaced out than usual—whatever "usual" is for you—and especially if the backup is causing you discomfort, then you are constipated.

How Is Food Digested?

To understand why constipation happens, it helps to know how stool is made:

  1. The food you eat enters your stomach, where it's ground into small particles.
  2. The particles move to the small intestine, where enzymes break down fats and proteins so they—along with other nutrients—can be absorbed.
  3. What's left (a liquid mix of fiber, bacteria, undigested fats, and mucus from your digestive tract) moves to the large intestine. Your large intestine pulls out water from the mixture, making a more solid stool.
  4. The stool passes into the rectum, at the end of your large intestine, where it becomes compacted.
  5. Once your rectum reaches capacity, your brain gets a signal to release your stool. When you are ready to push, the abdominal and rectal muscles tense while the sphincter muscles relax.

What Causes Constipation?

Constipation can be caused by a variety of factors. Sometimes it can be a symptom of other health conditions⁠ or diseases. Otherwise, you could just have constipation from your diet or lifestyle. Here are some of the causes of constipation.

Lack of Fiber

It's important to make sure you are getting enough fiber in your diet. Fiber is a carbohydrate that helps you feel full faster and aids in digestion.

A lack of fiber can cause constipation. A diet that includes high-fat meats, dairy, eggs, sweets, or processed foods can also cause constipation.

Delaying Bowel Movements

Holding in stool makes it more dry. This is more common with children who may delay going to the bathroom. This may be because:

  • Potty training is causing them stress
  • They feel embarrassed when using a public restroom
  • They don't want to stop playing
  • They're afraid to have a painful bowel movement

The longer stool sits, the more water your large intestine absorbs. Then, your stool becomes increasingly complex and dry (and more difficult to push out) which causes constipation.

Other Health Conditions

Constipation can also be a symptom of other health conditions. These include:

  • Diseases that affect the nerves like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's
  • Rectal issues like fissures (small tears) or hemorrhoids
  • Gastrointestinal disorders like celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Cancerous growths (can block your bowels)
  • Spinal cord and brain injuries
  • Diabetes

Treatment for this kind of constipation usually involves treating the underlying disease. Talk to a healthcare provider so they can help to figure out the underlying cause.

Traveling

Traveling can cause constipation. "Maybe your diet isn't as healthy, or you're not drinking as much water as usual," said Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, Health's contributing medical editor and a gastroenterologist at NYU-Langone Medical Center.

"You might be sitting still in a car or a plane instead of moving around." Changing time zones can also disrupt your bowel habits. Finally, you just might not feel comfortable using the toilet in a different environment.

Medications

It's possible that a medication that you're taking is causing your constipation. Some medications that cause constipation can include:

  • Antacids that contain aluminum and calcium
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Iron supplements
  • Diuretics
  • Narcotic pain medicines
  • Antidepressants

If you suspect that a medication is causing your condition, talk to your healthcare provider before stopping the medication. You can discuss what you can do to offset this side effect or ask if there's another drug that might work better for you.

Hormone Changes

Fluctuations in hormone levels—due to your period or pregnancy—can affect your bowels. During pregnancy, the increase in the hormone progesterone causes the intestinal muscles to relax which then causes food and waste to move slower through the gastrointestinal tract.

On the contrary, your period can help to alleviate constipation. "Many women who are premenstrual report episodes of constipation, and then they develop looser movements when they get their period," said Gina Sam, MD, a gastroenterologist in New York City.

Health conditions that impact your hormones, like thyroid disease, can also lead to constipation.

What Does Normal Stool Look Like?

If your unsure if you're constipated, take a look in the toilet and give your stool a quick check-up. Your stool's appearance can indicate whether you are constipated and show signs of other gastrointestinal problems.

The Bristol Stool Chart is a tool used by healthcare providers to classify stool based on shapes and consistency. But color and smell can also provide some insight on your gut health.

Color

What's normal: Any shade of brown. Stool is a brown color because of the dead red blood cells that are broken down in the intestines.

What's abnormal: Red or black, which can indicate blood in your stool. And if your stools are a dark green to a yellow-ish brown color that may be a sign of mucus or bile in your stool.

Red or black stool doesn't always mean bleeding. If you ate foods with red coloring, (such as cake or colorful breakfast cereals) that can also cause your stool to be a red color. Additionally, Pepto-Bismol, iron supplements, or dark-colored foods like black licorice or blueberries can turn your stool black.

Smell

What's normal: Some odor. The bacteria in your intestines produce sulphur-containing compounds which can cause a smell.

What's abnormal: A super-intense foul odor. People who have a diet that is high in fat are likely to have foul-smelling stool. And if you aren't properly absorbing nutrients from food, this can also cause a strong odor.

Shape

What's normal: One long sausage shape or snake shape.

What's abnormal: If your stool is shaped in soft blobs or pieces (not one solid shape) this could indicate diarrhea. Separate hard pieces can indicate constipation.

Consistency

What's normal: Soft and smooth enough to pass easily, but still compact.

What's abnormal: Small, hard rabbit pellets mean you're probably not getting enough fiber. A mushy or liquidy consistency is a sign of diarrhea.

What Are the Treatments for Constipation?

Getting your bowel contents moving again can help to ease constipation. You may need to modify your diet and lifestyle to improve your bowel movements.

Eat Fiber

Fiber can't be fully broken down by your digestive system, so it passes relatively quickly through your gut—keeping the rest of your food moving, too.

Most adults should try to get 22–34 grams of fiber every day. You can try a fiber supplement such as Metamucil or Citrucel, or you can add more fiber to your diet. Some of the best sources of fiber are:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains

Drink Water

You need plenty of fluids to flush waste out of your body and to hydrate your stools so they stay soft. When you don't drink enough water or fluids, your stools may be harder and more difficult to pass.

Laxatives

You can try taking laxatives for short-term constipation but you shouldn't use them long-term. A healthcare provider can help you figure out which laxative is best for you.

"Regularly relying on over-the-counter laxatives can mask the real cause of your constipation, whether it's a poor diet, a medication side effect, or even a serious health issue," Dr. Rajapaksa said. Repeated use can also destroy the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut, said Anish Sheth, MD, a gastroenterologist at Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and author of What's Your Poo Telling You?.

Stay Active

Staying active not only improves brain health, reduces the risk of disease, and strengthens your bones and muscles—it can also help with your constipation symptoms.

You can find an activity that you enjoy doing. This may include:

  • Walking, hiking, jogging, or running
  • Gardening
  • Bicycling or skateboarding
  • Yoga
  • Lifting weights
  • Dancing
  • Sports (like tennis, soccer, hockey, or basketball)

Everyone's physical activity level is different. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends most adults get age 18–64 get 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity activity.

Don't Hold in Your Stools

Since delaying a bowel movement can cause the intestines to absorb fluid from the stool, making it hard and dry and leading to constipation—you don't want to hold it in.

Since this is most common in children, caregivers can try a few different things to help. To encourage your child to go to the bathroom, you can try to use a reward system when your child goes to the bathroom. Or you can encourage them to use the toilet after meals which can help to build a routine.

Try Probiotics

The "good" bacteria in probiotics contribute to healthy gut flora and thereby improve digestion. One study suggested that taking probiotic supplements could help increase the frequency of your bowel movements and soften your stools.

Don't Use Your Phone on the Toilet

"Even if you're not straining, sitting there for a long time puts increased pressure on your rectum," which can weaken muscles, Dr. Sheth said.

If passing stools takes long enough that you need to bring your smartphone, that can be a warning sign of bad gastrointestinal health. Having a bowel movement should be a reasonably quick, effortless process.

Summary

Constipation can be caused by a lack of fiber, other health conditions, medications, or something else. If you are experiencing infrequent bowel movements or your stool is hard, dry, and difficult to pass, you may be constipated.

Talk to a healthcare provider so they can help you sort through different treatment options. Your treatment can depend on the cause of your constipation so it is important to explain your symptoms to a healthcare provider.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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