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Relieving Chronic Constipation

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9 Causes of Constipation

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Chris Illiades, MD on September 1, 2020

Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. That means something else is causing irregular bowel movements. Here are nine common reasons why you can’t always go.

  • woman with stomachache, abdominal pain, or side pain sitting up on couch reading a book
    What Is Constipation?
    Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. That means it's a sign of something else—something that is causing irregular bowel movements. For some people, constipation is a sign of irritable bowel syndrome, which requires medical treatment. Others with temporary symptoms may be able to find relief with home remedies for constipation. Either way, most experts agree if you have to strain to have a bowel movement or you haven't had one in more than three days, you're constipated. Here are nine common reasons why you can’t always go.
  • Multi-racial family smiling and enjoying healthy meal together
    1. Your Diet
    What you put in has a big effect on what comes out. That's why a bad diet is probably the leading cause of constipation. Two things you need for regularity are fluids and fiber. In fact, you need 25 to 30 grams of fiber every day, but most Americans get just 12 to 15 grams. Good sources of fiber include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Foods that clog the system include refined sugars, animal fats, and dairy products. You also need 60 to 80 ounces of fluid each day.
  • Man staring at cell phone with look of worry or stress
    2. Your Mind
    It might sound strange, but thinking you need to have a bowel movement every day is a major cause of feeling constipated. Doctors call this “pseudo-constipation.” This false belief in a daily bowel movement has led to an overuse of laxatives and enemas. Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on laxatives. But, once you become dependent on laxatives, you're likely to have trouble going without them. The truth is that not moving your bowels for a day or two is not harmful.
  • Middle  age Caucasian woman writing in journal at kitchen table looking away in thought
    3. Your Routine
    Changes in your daily routine are a major cause of constipation. Changes in the food you eat, as well as getting less exercise than normal can cause constipation. Long periods of sitting—like on an airplane—can contribute. Dehydration plays a part, too. These are all reasons why constipation often strikes when you travel. If you hate to go to the bathroom away from home, putting off a bowel movement can be a trigger. 
  • Man looking self in bathroom mirror
    4. Ignoring the Urge
    Ignoring the urge to go is a big cause of constipation. This is especially true in children. So it’s good advice for everyone—when your colon tells you it's time, you need to listen. Not everyone has a bowel movement every day, but you should have one at least once every three days.
  • Pregnant woman drinking water
    5. Pregnancy
    About half of all pregnant women suffer with constipation. As a baby grows, it puts pressure on the digestive tract. Hormonal changes from pregnancy and taking iron supplements also contribute. The best remedy is to get plenty of fiber, fluids and exercise. Avoid laxatives. They can stimulate uterine contractions. You may want to try fiber supplements instead, but check with your doctor before taking any supplements
  • Elderly Caucasian man looking thoughtfully out window
    6. Your Age
    Older adults are about five times more likely to have trouble going than younger adults. The reasons are many, but being less active is a big one. That's especially true for someone who's had a long period of bed rest. Some older people eat less because of a drop in appetite. They also may depend more on processed, easy-to-prepare foods. Seniors, on average, take more prescription medications, many of which can contribute to constipation. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review your current meds if constipation is becoming a problem. And older people may also drink less to avoid nighttime trips to the bathroom. To avoid constipation, older people generally need more fluids, more fiber, and more activity.
  • Young woman sitting on the couch with stomach upset
    7. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
    IBS is a common condition. As many as 15% of Americans have it. Abdominal pain and diarrhea are among the symptoms, but constipation can be a major symptom of IBS, too. If you have these symptoms at least three times a month for at least three months, ask you doctor if IBS might be involved. Then, if you do have IBS, work with your doctor to learn how to overcome it. Find out what foods to avoid and what lifestyle changes to make.
  • Close-up of Caucasian woman taking pill with glass of water
    8. Medication
    If you often have trouble going, review all the drugs you take with your doctor. Certain over-the-counter medicines, prescription drugs, and supplements are common causes of constipation. For example, antacids can cause it, and so can iron supplements. Prescription drugs that commonly cause this problem include certain medications for pain, depression, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and high blood pressure. 
  • Doctor consulting with patient
    9. Mechanics
    Let your doctor know if you take laxatives for more than three weeks or if you often have less than three bowel movements a week. Constipation can be a warning sign of a more serious problem. This includes nervous system diseases like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. A growth or other conditions narrowing your colon also could be a cause. So, be safe and have your doctor check to see if anything is wrong. 
9 Causes of Constipation | Digestive Health
  1. Constipation. American Society of Colon & Rectal Surgeons, Oct 2012,
  2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  3. Pregnancy and Constipation. American Pregnancy Association.
  4. Understanding Constipation. American Gastrological Association.

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Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 1
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