Are You Constipated?

Bowel habits vary from person to person, and not having a bowel movement daily doesn’t mean you’re constipated.

“Some people may have only three bowel movements a week, while others may have multiple movements a day,” says John Hyatt, M.D., a gastroenterologist on staff at Baylor Medical Center at Garland and Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano in Texas. “A better indicator of whether you’re constipated is if you’ve had a sudden decrease in your typical number of bowel movements.”

Constipation triggers

Common causes of constipation include a poor diet, inadequate fluid intake, inactivity, poor bowel habits, and overuse of laxatives or enemas. Drugs, including antacids that contain aluminum or calcium, antispasmodics, antidepressants, sedatives, iron supplements, anticonvulsants, calcium channel blockers, and painkillers—especially narcotics—can also cause constipation.

Some medical conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes—can also trigger constipation. Sudden constipation is rarely a sign of an underlying disease such as cancer.

Is your constipation chronic?

The symptoms of infrequent bouts of constipation and constipation that’s persistent are similar. Constipation is considered chronic when you’ve had two or more of the following symptoms for at least three months:

Two or fewer bowel movements a week

Straining to defecate

Passage of pellet-like or hard stools

Abdominal pain that’s relieved by a bowel movement

Feeling as if your bowels haven’t fully emptied or there’s a blockage in your rectum

Feeling the need to assist the stool’s release by pressing on your abdomen or using your finger

No loose stools without the use of laxatives

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.