​​How To Help Constipation: Symptoms, Cause & Treatment 2023

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Reviewed by Sutton, D., MD

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How To Help Constipation

What is Constipation And Its Common Symptoms?

Constipation can be recognized as the inability to make regular daily bowel movements. This can often be treated with short-term lifestyle changes, like increasing fiber intake through food or fiber supplements. That is another rant altogether, that we will save for later. 

On the other hand, more chronic constipation[1] can be recognized as making less than 3 bowel movements per week. An eventual bowel movement may require excessive intra-abdominal (stomach) strain, which could cause a significant amount of pain and even an inguinal hernia[2] (groin damage).   

The stool passed through a constipated individual can be much dense and larger compared to healthy bowel movements. This condition can also be accompanied by bloating, nausea, stomach cramps, and pains.   

Do you or some that you know have any of these symptoms? If so, it is definitely worth reading through this article for educational purposes, then seeking more personalized treatment and advice from your healthcare provider. Even if you do not have any of these symptoms, it is still worth soaking up some of the knowledge in the event of being affected.    

Cause Of Constipation

Blockages In The Colon Or Rectum

There could be a variety of reasons for the blockages in the colon or rectum. Some uncommon causes could include an accumulation of scar tissue, excessive rotation of the intestines, or tumor growth.

More often, a colon blockage is caused by neglecting some important lifestyle factors like fiber consumption, which may hinder the body’s natural ability to excrete feces. In the USA, the average fiber intake is around 15g per day[3], hence why constipation is so prevalent. This will be covered in more detail later in the article.

Difficulty With The Muscles Involved In Elimination

The pelvic floor muscles have a major influence over bowel movements. In the case of them becoming weakened or unable to coordinate proper contractions, constipation could be a possibility. Certain exercises can be put into place to keep the pelvic floor muscles healthy, strong, and functioning. Some of these exercises have been labeled further down in the article.

Problems With The Nerves Around The Rectum And Anus

Perhaps to your surprise, you can also experience a loss of bowel movements through an impairment of the nerves in the rectum and anus. Amongst other bowel problems, damage to the nerves may cause constipation. If you experience such a condition, it is important to seek medical attention, and medical interventions would need to be put in place to resolve the issue. 

Conditions That Affect Hormones In The Body

A change in hormones around the time of a period can cause constipation. This is perfectly normal and should not be alarming. As soon as hormones begin to normalize, constipation should subside.

Risk Factors Of Constipation

There are many risk factors for constipation that have been highlighted below;

  • Poor dietary habits with lots of processed foods  
  • Low soluble fiber consumption 
  • Low insoluble fiber consumption 
  • Low water intake
  • Lack of activity and exercise
  • Dairy intake (for lactose intolerant)
  • Difficulty with the muscles involved in the elimination
  • Certain prescription medication
  • Recent surgery/scarring of the colon
  • Being pregnant
  • Being newborns
  • Being elderly
  • Tumor growth around the colon
  • Colon nerve impairments
  • Gut mus
How to Help Constipation

Complications Of Constipation

Long-term constipation can pose a risk for more severe complications, so it is important to be addressed if symptoms do not seem to subside within a week.

These complications include:

  • Hemorrhoids (lumps around the anus, usually accompanied by bleeding)
  • Collection of dry stool in rectum
  • Bowel incontinence (liquid stool that leaks through)

How To Relieve Constipation 

Take A Supplement

A bulk-forming laxative[4], also known as a fiber supplement may help treat chronic constipation, due to their high fiber content. Fiber can help bulk, soften and break down stool, which would in turn encourage bowel movements. Popular products include fybogel or methylcellulose. 

Osmotic laxatives[5] come in the form of lactulose and macrogol. Unlike bulk-forming laxatives, osmotic laxatives have shown to drive water into the bowels and treat constipation.

On average these supplements have shown to get to work within 48-72 hrs. If these supplements are not effective, it may be rational to revisit your healthcare provider for a more thorough examination. 

Eat Foods High In Fiber

Observing a ‘healthy’ diet and eating high fiber foods can help prevent constipation. Subsequently, promoting a normal functioning digestive system. The recommended daily fiber intake in the USA[6] is currently documented at 25-30g. This could be obtained from whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables etc.

Drink More Water

Water and fluid intake is another crucial lifestyle factor. Low water intake can increase the stool density and lower its overall weight. This in turn, can reduce the normal functions of the bowel[7].

It is important to maintain hydration, by drinking at least 8 (8 oz) glasses of water per day, and possibly more depending on humidity and exercise levels.

Exercise

Exercise is another lifestyle factor that may help relieve constipation. Light exercise may engage the pelvic floor muscles and speed up the time it takes for matter to move through the intestines.

Exercises to help stool pass could include:

  • Wind relieving pose
  • Cobra pose
  • Controlled spinal twists
  • Cardiovascular exercise
  • Bird dog
  • Bridge
  • Squat position

Drink Coffee, Especially Caffeinated Coffee

Caffeine is a natural laxative (stimulant laxative) found in coffee. It stimulates the muscles surrounding the gut lining and may offer constipation relief. 

Other than drinking coffee, you can acquire caffeine from;

  • Tea 
  • Energy drinks 
  • Caffeinated soft drinks 
  • Caffeine gels 
  • Caffeine tablets 

Take A Laxative Stimulant

As we have mentioned, laxative stimulants[8] can increase the activity around the colon muscles. This over the counter medication is available in the form of bisacodyl and senna. However, it is always recommended to seek medical advice prior to taking any stimulant laxatives. They supposedly get to work in around 6-12 hrs, offering rapid relief to the digestive tract. 

Consider A Stool Softener

Stool softeners in many countries are prescription drugs. They should only be used acutely and never be relied upon. Stool softeners like docusate sodium[9] work by softening the poo rapidly. They are designed for those who should avoid straining in case of an injury i.e., special population groups like the elderly and disabled.  

Try An Enema

An enema is a warm mineral oil that may hydrate and soften stools. They may help ease constipation to some extent, but may not be that effective with large brick-like structures of stool. It may still be worth a try, so you could consult your healthcare professional who will assess if it is appropriate depending on the severity of your condition.  

Try A Suppository

A Suppository is a jelly-like substance that may help in treating constipation. It may have some medicinal properties for conditions related to the bowl, which include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome 
  • Chronic idiopathic constipation
  • Ulcerative colitis/prevent rectal prolapse

Try Colonic Massage

Other therapeutic remedies for constipation include a colonic massage. This is an abdominal massage maneuvered in circular motions. It can be self performed or done by a professional masseuse. 

There have been many claims through anecdote that colonel massages type may help to remove gas, bloating and constipation. However, you will get the odd group who claims that  it can make constipation worse.

Try Avoiding Dairy

This point applies to those who are lactose intolerant. Up to 30% of cases[10] of constipation occur amongst this demographic. These individuals do not possess the enzymes to digest dairy, which then passes into the colon undigested.

Some dairy products to avoid could include:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream 
  • Butter

How To Help Constipation During Pregnancy

According to the NHS England[11], there are many interventions that can be put into place to help constipation during pregnancy. These include;

  • Eat more fiber (20-30g), by basing your food choices around 
  • Specific exercise regularly, to keep the muscles strong including pelvic floor 
  • Drink enough water (8 glasses)

How To Help Baby With Constipation

With older babies you can simply increase dietary fiber in their diet in moderation. With babies who are being breastfed[12], you can try placing them supinated on a suitable surface and create a bicycle motion with their legs to help pass stool. You can also give them a light abdominal massage. If the baby is on a powder based alternative to milk, It is also worth giving them some additional gripe water in-between some feeds.

Treatment For Occasional vs. Chronic Constipation

Occasional Constipation

An occasional constipation can be treated through increased dietary fiber through the diet or a bulk-forming fiber supplementation, going for 25-30g of fiber in the day.  Moreover, drinking water can also help get you on the mend.

Chronic Constipation

Chronic constipation can be addressed through through a pyramid of strategies[13] starting from:  

  • Diet and lifestyle changes 
  • Stool softener
  • Osmotic laxative
  • Stimulant laxative
  • Prucalapride
  • Probiotics  

Treatment For Severe Constipation

The treatment for severe constipation would be similar to the treatment of chronic constipation. You may also want to visit your medical doctor for a more thorough examination and guided interventions. Perhaps you may even be provided with  prescription medication depending on your medical conditions.

When To See A Doctor

You should get into contact with your doctor if you;

  • Find blood in your stool
  • Experience severe pain in the stomach 
  • The constipation persists without any relief, and you have a family history of colon cancer 

Conclusion

We should understand that there are many reasons for being exposed to constipation with many different risk factors. 

Persistent chronic constipation can have many complications as mentioned. For this reason, it is important to address the issue as soon as possible. We have highlighted 11 different strategies that can be used to help relieve the digestive issue.  

The diet and lifestyle recommendations also work for pregnant women. The dietary interventions and supplementation would not apply to newborns who experience constipation, therefore we would have to use more natural methods like light massage. 

It becomes crucial to contact a medical doctor when you experience certain symptoms like blood in the stool, severe constipation amongst a special population group, or having a history of colon cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I avoid eating or drinking if I’m constipated?

You should avoid foods that are low in fiber i.e., processed food and perhaps dairy if you are lactose intolerant. Moreover, other foods are difficult to digest like meat.

How long does constipation last?

It should not last longer than 3 weeks, if it lasts any longer you should get in touch with your medical doctor. In some cases, you could get some medical advice after a week i.e., for special population groups.

Can constipation increase weight?

YES! But it probably is not fat mass, the weight on the scale will be from the additional residual stuck inside your colon.

Should I keep eating if I am constipated?

You should be very selective about your food choice. I would recommend going for fibrous foods and drinks like fruit juices (with pulp) and grains. 

How does your body feel when constipated?

You may experience sharp stomach pains, cramps, nausea, bloating, low mood, and even depression or anxiety.

Can drink too much water cause constipation?

Drinking excessive amounts of water may deplete the body’s potassium, which can cause constipation, independent from any of the factors we have mentioned.

+ 13 sources

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  1. NHS Choices (2023). Constipation. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/constipation/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  2. NHS Choices (2023). Overview – Inguinal hernia repair. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/inguinal-hernia-repair/#:~:text=Inguinal%20hernias%20can%20sometimes%20appear,having%20a%20persistent%2C%20heavy%20cough [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  3. Health, U. (2019). Increasing Fiber Intake. [online] ucsfhealth.org. Available at: https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/increasing-fiber-intake#:~:text=How%20much%20fiber%20do%20I,about%2015%20grams%20a%20day. [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  4. NHS Choices (2023). Overview – Laxatives. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/laxatives/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  5. NHS Choices (2023). Overview – Laxatives. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/laxatives/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  6. Health, U. (2019). Increasing Fiber Intake. [online] ucsfhealth.org. Available at: https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/increasing-fiber-intake#:~:text=How%20much%20fiber%20do%20I,about%2015%20grams%20a%20day. [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  7. Varsha Jangid, Meena Godhia, Neha Sanwalka and Shukla, A. (2016). Water Intake, Dietary Fibre, Defecatory Habits and its Association with Chronic Functional Constipation. Current Research in Nutrition and Food Science Journal, [online] 4(2), pp.90–95. Available at: https://www.foodandnutritionjournal.org/volume4number2/water-intake-dietary-fibre-defecatory-habits-and-its-association-with-chronic-functional-constipation/#:~:text=Low%20water%20intake%20makes%20the,with%20prevalence%20of%20functional%20constipation [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  8. NHS Choices (2023). Overview – Laxatives. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/laxatives/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  9. Medlineplus.gov. (2018). Stool Softeners: MedlinePlus Drug Information. [online] Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a601113.html [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  10. Leszkowicz, J., Plata-Nazar, K. and Szlagatys-Sidorkiewicz, A. (2022). Can Lactose Intolerance Be a Cause of Constipation? A Narrative Review. Nutrients, [online] 14(9), p.1785. doi:10.3390/nu14091785.
  11. NHS Choices (2023). Common health problems in pregnancy. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/related-conditions/common-symptoms/common-health-problems/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].‌
  12. NHS Choices (2023). Breastfeeding challenges. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/start4life/baby/feeding-your-baby/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-challenges/constipation/#:~:text=lie%20your%20baby%20down%20and,they’re%20getting%20enough%20fibre [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].
  13. Liu, L.W.C. (2011). Chronic constipation: current treatment options. Canadian journal of gastroenterology = Journal canadien de gastroenterologie, [online] 25 Suppl B(Suppl B), pp.22B28B. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3206558/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2023].

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shakoor, Z., Nutritionist
Nutrition, Exercise & Health Specialist/Writer
Zack Shakoor Kayani was born and raised in the South East of England/London. Zack has attained a bolus of knowledge regarding biosciences through academia and his career experiences. In terms of his educational background, he has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology (Hons.), a Postgraduate diploma in sports nutrition with the International Olympic Committee, and a Master of Science in Nutritional Sciences from Middlesex University. Zack has been fortunate enough to apply his Exercise Science and Nutrition Knowledge to aid Hundreds if not Thousands of Patients and Athletes, providing 1-1 consultation, Personal training, Information sheets, offering recommendations to collate nutrition and exercise programs, etc. Not to mention, in 2022, he authored a book called 'The 'Good' Coach Weight Loss Solution.

ABOUT MEDICAL REVIEWER

Sutton, D., MD
Medical Writer & Editor
Drew is a retired ENT doctor who now lives in the Southeastern US. He was a member of the American Academy of Otolaryngology and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. He has a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Psychology and an MD degree. He completed his internship in General Surgery and Residency in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and practiced for almost 30 years in all aspects of ENT, including a specialization in disorders of the ear and skull base. Drew is passionate about communicating his clinical experiences and making his knowledge more accessible to the general public by medical writing.