Constipation is the most common digestive complaint in the country. Specifically, about 4 million people deal with frequent constipation in the United States on an annual basis. Further, there are about 900 annual deaths from constipation-related diseases.
Given how common constipation is, it shouldn't be surprising that there are various causes for this condition, which can affect treatment. That means knowing more about this condition (and its causes) is key for finding relief.
What is considered constipation?
When a person experiences constipation, they typically have infrequent bowel movements or have difficulty passing stools. When this condition is persistent for several weeks or more, it is considered chronic constipation.
How is constipation diagnosed?
When diagnosing constipation, a doctor will usually use the three bowel movements or less a week measurement. It is common for many Americans to have occasional bouts of constipation. However, some individuals will suffer from chronic constipation that affects their daily life.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
Chronic constipation can cause individuals to strain when trying to pass stool, which can lead to other health issues. Some of the most common symptoms associated with constipation include:
- Three stools or less a week
- Hard or lumpy stools
- Excessive straining during bowel movements
- Feeling the rectum is never wholly empty
How is constipation managed?
When trying to find a treatment for either acute or chronic constipation, a doctor will search for an underlying cause to craft the best possible treatment plan.
What are some of the top causes of constipation?
In this slide show, you will find the top 13 reasons most individuals experience constipation and how to manage these causes. It all starts with a common dietary deficiency...
13. Fiber Deficiency
How does low fiber cause constipation?
When you consume a diet low in fiber and high in fats, it can lead to constipation. You see, fiber helps soften your stools by helping them absorb more water; stools can then pass more comfortably. So, a person who has a diet with a high intake of fiber will be less likely to experience constipation.
What sort of foods aid constipation?
Proper hydration and fiber promote regular bowel movements in most people. If you want to increase your dietary fiber intake, you can eat high-fiber foods. These types of foods include:
- whole grains
What sort of foods contribute to constipation?
You should avoid foods low in fiber and high in fat as well as highly processed foods. That means foods to avoid include:
- red meat
- white bread
- fast food
It is important to note that when some individuals with severe constipation increase fiber intake, constipation initially gets worse.
Of course, other lifestyle habits can also affect the digestive system, including the following...
12. Lack Of Exercise
A lack of exercise tends to lead to chronic constipation, especially in older people. In fact, many studies show that people who are not physically fit are more likely to experience constipation than physically fit individuals.
How can low exercise lead to constipation?
When you exercise, your colon responds to the movement, hence increasing the odds of a healthy bowel movement. Exercise also increases muscle tone, which is also essential for regular bowel movements. After all, the muscles of the abdominal wall and diaphragm play a vital role in this process.
So, if you spend several days in bed or sitting in a chair, you are at a higher risk of constipation. However, no evidence is available to support exercise will reduce constipation in younger people. It is generally more effective when older people increase their daily activity.
What exercises can help?
To decrease your chances of developing constipation, you should walk 10,000 steps a day or do other exercises focused on your core, as that is where your abdominal muscles are located.
While it's possible to adjust dietary habits and exercise patterns, the next issue is a little trickier to manage...
11. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
What does IBS feel like?
Individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other functional intestinal difficulties are more likely to experience constipation. When you have IBS, you experience a wide array of symptoms besides constipation. These symptoms include:
- abdominal pain
- change in consistency of stools
- change in stool frequency
- distension (abdominal bloating or swelling)
What causes IBS?
The exact cause of IBS is not known at this time. However, doctors believe the following factors contribute to this disease:
- muscle contractions
- abnormalities in the digestive system's nerves
- inflammation in the large or small intestine
- bacterial imbalance in the digestive system
How is IBS managed?
This digestive disorder mainly affects the large intestine. Unlike many of the other causes on this list, IBS needs to be managed for a lifetime. However, only a small amount of people experience severe symptoms associated with IBS.
IBS can typically be controlled by handling your diet, lifestyle, and stress levels. The most severe symptoms associated with this disease are generally managed with medication and counseling techniques.
Whatever issue you're dealing with, it's important to remain consistent. Otherwise, you could suffer from digestive issues, as our bodies hate breaks in routine...
10. Routine Changes
In 2008, a group of scientists interviewed 83 people about any digestive changes they traveled outside of the United States for short periods. The results revealed that 9% (roughly 1 in 10) of these people experienced constipation.
How does a change in diet affect bowel movements?
Most people develop a particular schedule when it comes to everyday life. You get up and go to work. At work, you eat around the same time every day. You come home and eat dinner at the same time. If you exercise, it is also probably at the same time every day.
We are creatures of habit, so when we change our daily life, it can cause health issues. When you travel, it disrupts your daily routine and even diet. These disruptions can affect your digestive system, causing constipation.
What specific changes can trigger constipation?
When you go to bed, use the restroom, or eat meals at different times, it increases the risk of constipation. Becoming pregnant can also affect the digestive system because of the change in hormones in addition to the enlarged uterus pushing on the gastrointestinal tract.
Unfortunately, it's much harder to prevent the following cause of constipation...
9. Age and Diverticulitis
The prevalence of constipation increases as people get older. Studies show that 40% of the elderly living in their community and 60% of older people living in institutions experienced at least one bout of constipation in the last few months. The cause of this issue is not clear.
What is diverticulitis?
However, some doctors will investigate the possibility of the older person having a diverticular disease. Almost 50% of individuals 60 years or old have diverticulosis, a disease that causes small pockets in the lining of the colon to bulge out.
Many people do not suffer any symptoms from this condition. However, others experience:
- abdominal pain
How is diverticulitis managed?
Doctors treat these symptoms with antibiotics, liquid diet, and medications. Of course, you should be incredibly conscientious of how you're taking your medications, as they may also lead to gastrointestinal issues...
8. Opioids and Other Medicines
94% of cancer patients experience constipation caused by opioids, while 41% of patients taking the medication for noncancerous pain experience constipation.
How can medication cause constipation?
Some medications can increase the chance of you experiencing constipation. Opioids in particularly can cause or worsen constipation. Why? Because the digestive system has receptors for this type of medicine.
Many prescription and over-the-counter medications list constipation as a possible side effect. Typically, these medicines make the bowels sluggish or cause dehydration, which can slow the process down.
Tricyclic antidepressants, particular anticonvulsants, and calcium-channel blockers also affect the digestive system. Antacids containing aluminum and antacids containing calcium remove acid and other liquids from your digestive tract, which can cause constipation.
What about diuretics?
Diuretics are similar in that they also remove excess fluid from the body, which can cause dehydration (which in turn can lead to constipation as stools harden).
What's the solution?
If you believe your constipation is caused by the medicine you are taking, visit your doctor instead of self-treating. Why? Because some treatments may interfere with the medication. Your doctor can prescribe a variety of different types of laxatives that do not affect the effectiveness of the medicine.
Just be careful not to become too dependent on those laxatives...
7. Laxative Abuse
When a person suffers from anorexia or bulimia, they sometimes misuse laxatives, which may even lead to a dependence issue. This dependence can mean constipation.
How can laxatives cause constipation? After all, they can be an excellent choice for helping "move things along" for the occasional bout of irregularity. However, if you regularly use laxatives, your body gets used to them.
How can laxatives cause constipation?
When the body gets used to laxatives, people often continually take the laxatives even after they no longer need them. As this abuse continues, the individual will require higher doses of the laxative to get the same effect—meaning these individuals can get "stopped up" when they don't take higher and higher amounts of laxatives.
In the past, it was determined that the use of some laxatives would damage the nerve cells in the colon. This usage was also thought to disrupt the colon's ability to contract in and out. As newer formulas have been released, this outcome has become increasingly rare. However, the overuse of laxatives can also lead to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration—two other causes of dehydration.
What's the solution?
Consult with a doctor before starting any laxatives to ensure the medicine is necessary and you are getting the proper dosage. It's also important to stay hydrated the entire time you take them.
Besides avoiding medication abuse, it's also important to listen to your body to prevent constipation. So, if you notice the urge "to go," go...
6. Ignoring the Urge "To Go"
One of the first rules of preventing constipation is to use the bathroom when you have the urge to go. Why? Because when you hold in a bowel movement, you are increasing your risk of developing constipation.
How does this behavior cause constipation?
Some doctors believe that if you ignore the urge to move your bowels long enough, eventually you will no longer feel the urge.
Additionally, if you delay using the bathroom long enough, your stools will become drier and harder (which are difficult to pass). Dry and hard stools can eventually lead to fecal impaction, which can be a medical emergency.
Avoid impaction at all costs.
Ignoring the urge to visit the restroom isn't the only way you can develop hard stools that cause impaction, though...
One of the best ways to relieve chronic constipation is to ensure you are drinking plenty of fluids. Why? Because fluids are what keeps the food moving through your small and large intestines. Water also allows your intestines to be smooth and flexible.
How does dehydration cause constipation?
When you eat food, it makes its way from your stomach to the colon or intestine. Your large intestine absorbs water from food waste. If your body lacks water, this absorption can create hard and dry stools that cause constipation.
How much liquid should you drink?
The Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board recommends that women process at least 91 ounces of water and men 125 ounces of water each day. These numbers include the fluids that you get from your food.
In general, this amount computes to about 8 cups of water a day.
What types of liquid should you avoid?
Some liquids increase the likelihood of dehydration and constipation. These liquids include:
- caffeinated sodas
Diabetics should take extra precautions with what they drink for a variety of reasons, including to prevent constipation...
4. Diabetes and Diabetic Complications
Research suggests that constipation affects between 11% and 56% of all people with diabetes. In other words, if you have type 1 or 2 diabetes, you are at a higher risk of suffering from chronic constipation.
How can diabetic neuropathy cause constipation?
It is possible for people with diabetes to develop diabetic neuropathy. This disease results in nerve damage all over the body, including the digestive system. If the vagus nerve—which moves waste along—is damaged, it affects your body’s ability to process solid waste effectively.
Damage to this nerve can also cause gastroparesis. Now, gastroparesis is a condition that delays gastric emptying, which can also lead to constipation.
How else can diabetes cause constipation?
If you have diabetes, you sometimes have to follow a strict diet.While this diet can help prevent blood-sugar spikes, it can also cause constipation. Therefore, it's important for diabetics to talk to their doctors about including enough fiber in their diet.
People with diabetes often take medication that can also affect digestion. If you believe your prescription is causing your constipation, you should speak with your doctor to confirm and seek an alternative.
Now, diabetes isn't the only major medical condition that can lead to constipation as a side effect...
3. Neurological Problems
Other neurological diseases can also cause constipation.
What problems can cause constipation?
Studies have shown that constipation is more prevalent in individuals who have:
- multiple sclerosis
- spinal injuries
- Parkinson's disease
- muscular dystrophy
How can these conditions cause constipation?
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological issue that affects your nervous system. Parkinson’s disease progressively damages an individual's brain. Therefore, both of these conditions can affect brain signals telling the intestines how to contract and move stools.
How are these conditions diagnosed?
While all of the above issues can lead to constipation, you will typically experience other symptoms associated with each. A doctor must therefore complete a physical exam and other tests to provide an accurate diagnosis.
While some of these conditions can be difficult to spot, it's a little easier to diagnose the following...
2. Underactive Thyroid (Hypothyroidism)
The thyroid is a small gland located towards the front of your neck. Importantly, this gland releases metabolism-controlling hormones.
How can thyroid problems lead to constipation?
Sometimes this gland will fail to produce enough hormones, which can significantly affect your metabolism. When your metabolism slows, it can impact the entire digestive process, thereby leading to constipation.
What are some symptoms of hypothryroidism?
Hypothyroidism’s symptoms develop over time and can include:
- puffy face
- sensitivity to colder weather
- increase weight
- straw-like hair
- dry skin
- brittle fingernails
What causes hypothyroidism?
Various conditions can lead to an underactive thyroid. These conditions include:
- iodine deficiency
- thyroid surgery
- pituitary disorders
- congenital diseases
- radiation therapy
- Hashimoto's disease
How is hypothyroidism diagnosed?
If a doctor thinks you are suffering from hypothyroidism, they will typically order a blood test known as a thyroid function test, which assesses your thyroid function. If this test indicates you may have hypothyroidism, your doctor will probably run more tests for further confirmation.
How is hypothyroidism managed?
If it is determined you suffer from hypothyroidism, you will be prescribed a synthetic thyroid hormone such as levothyroxine. With some people, unfortunately, this hormone will also cause constipation.
The most common cause of constipation?
One of the most common causes of constipation is unfortunately something that millions of people deal with on a daily basis...
1. Stress and Anxiety
Nervous butterflies in the stomach are a clear sign that the brain and your gastrointestinal tract are connected. Gut-wrenching anxiety is another sign of this connection.
The communication between the nervous and digestive systems is vital for a variety of bodily functions, including digestion. When this communication is off, it can cause constipation, diarrhea, or stomach pain. These unwanted symptoms can be triggered when you are feeling stress and anxiety.
How can stress cause constipation?
It is also possible that chronic constipation and other digestive issues can lead to stress and anxiety, which creates a horrible cycle of self-feeding discomfort. This circle is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is a network of nerves.
This nervous system contains the sympathetic system, which prepares the body for fight-or-flight emergencies and the parasympathetic system, which calms the body after these emergencies. The parasympathetic system also tells the gastrointestinal tract to ready the body for digestion.
When your body is stressed, extra hormones are released by the brain, which raises serotonin in the gut, which in turn causes the stomach to spasm. If these spasms go throughout the colon, you get diarrhea. If they happen in only one area of the colon, it can cause constipation.
So, what's most important to remember?...
When you understand the causes of constipation, you can prevent it—or at least minimize its severity and/or frequency. Many of the previously mentioned causes have clear remedies. However, if you find you are suffering from chronic constipation, you may want to visit your doctor.
What are the complications of chronic constipation?
Chronic constipation can lead to a variety of complications.
One complication is hemorrhoids, which are swollen veins in your anus. This issue is caused when you continually strain to have a bowel movement. A hard stool can cause an anal fissure, which is torn skin in your anus.
Without treatment, constipation can also lead to fecal impaction. This complication is when the accumulation of hardened stools cannot be expelled.
Another complication that can happen is rectal prolapse, which occurs when straining too much causes the sections of the rectum to project from the anus.
Finding constipation relief is possible.
A variety of treatments are available for constipation, but these treatments are based on the cause of the issue. Your doctor will perform a series of tests as well as complete a physical examination to provide a diagnosis. So, be aware of your body and any changes that can occur; it can help you find out exactly what is going on and what may be causing the issue.