Constipation is a change in your normal bowel movements, going less frequently than you usually do, passing hard, dry stools, or straining when you defecate. Constipation can be acute (coming on suddenly but infrequently) or chronic (long lasting). Most people have constipation at some point. Often dietary changes can relieve the problem. However, constipation can also be a sign of illness, some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) experience alternating constipation and diarrhea, for example.
"Normal" bowel movements vary from person to person. Some people go every day, or even 3 times a day; others may go only 3 times a week. Some healthy people may have soft or near-runny stools, while others have firm stools but no trouble passing them.
Signs and Symptoms
- Fewer than 3 bowel movements a week
- Sudden decrease in the number of bowel movements
- Stools harder than usual
- Bowel still feels full after bowel movement
- Feeling bloated
- Straining during bowel movements
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:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin)
- Phenytoin (Dilantin)
- Valproic acid (Depakote)
- Amitriptyline (Elavil)
- Doxepin (Sinequan)
- Imipramine (Tofranil)
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
Constipation in children often occurs if they hold back bowel movements when they are not ready for toilet training, or are afraid of it.