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Healthgrades Editorial Staff

What is constipation?

Constipation is an abnormal condition in which bowel movements occur less frequently than what is usual for you. One-fourth or more of these bowel movements are accompanied with straining. Every person has differences in their normal, regular pattern of bowel movements, but constipation can be loosely defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week.

When you are constipated, you have bowel movements that are hard, dry and difficult or painful to pass. You may also only pass small amounts of stool in small pieces at one time. Constipation is caused by food moving too slowly through the colon, or it can occur when the colon absorbs too much water from digested food as it forms waste products (stool).

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Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints. Constipation is very common in young children and the elderly but can occur in any age group or population.

A wide variety of diseases, disorders and conditions can lead to constipation, including lifestyle changes, dehydration, malignancy (cancer), inflammation, and other abnormal processes. Constipation can be due to mild to moderate conditions, such as a poor diet, pregnancy or hemorrhoids. Serious and life-threatening causes of constipation include colon cancer and bowel obstruction.

In some cases, constipation may be brief, such as may occur when you delay having a bowel movement when the urge is felt. Constipation can also persist over a longer period of time, such as when it is caused by a diet low in fiber and fluids.

If your constipation persists, recurs or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Constipation that is associated with bloody stool, major rectal bleeding, dizziness, fainting, or severe abdominal pain can be a symptom of a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms.