Understanding Constipation: Early Signs and Treatment Options

June 5, 2024

Understanding Constipation

Constipation is a common digestive problem where bowel movements become infrequent or difficult to pass. It typically involves having fewer than three bowel movements a week. Constipation can be chronic, lasting for several weeks or longer, or it can be an acute condition that occurs suddenly.

Early Signs of Constipation

Recognizing the early signs of constipation can help you address the condition before it becomes more severe. The early signs include:

Infrequent Bowel Movements

  • Less Frequent Stools: Having fewer than three bowel movements per week is a common early sign of constipation. However, this can vary from person to person based on their normal bowel habits.

Difficulty Passing Stools

  • Straining: Experiencing difficulty and straining during bowel movements is a typical sign of constipation.
  • Hard or Lumpy Stools: Stools that are hard and lumpy indicate constipation. They are often painful and difficult to pass.

Abdominal Discomfort

  • Bloating: Feeling bloated and experiencing a sense of fullness in the abdomen.
  • Cramping: Abdominal cramps and discomfort are often associated with an urge to pass stool but an inability to do so.

Sensation of Incomplete Evacuation

  • The feeling of Blockage: A sensation that there is a blockage in the rectum that prevents bowel movements.
  • Incomplete Emptying: Feeling that the bowels are not completely emptied after a bowel movement.

Causes of Constipation

Several factors can contribute to constipation, including:

Dietary Factors

  • Low Fiber Intake: Diets low in fiber can lead to constipation. Fiber helps add bulk to stool and keeps it soft.
  • Dehydration: Not drinking enough water can cause stool to become hard and difficult to pass.

Lifestyle Factors

  • Lack of Physical Activity: Sedentary lifestyles can slow down the digestive system, leading to constipation.
  • Ignoring the Urge to Have a Bowel Movement: Ignoring the urge to go can lead to constipation, as delaying bowel movements can cause stool to become harder and more difficult to pass.

Medical Conditions and Medications

  • Certain Medications: Medications such as opioids, antacids containing calcium or aluminum, and certain antidepressants can cause constipation.
  • Medical Conditions: Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes, thyroid disorders, and neurological disorders can contribute to constipation.

Treatment Options for Constipation

Effective management of constipation often involves a combination of lifestyle changes, dietary adjustments, and sometimes medications. Here are several strategies to help alleviate and prevent constipation:

Dietary Changes

  • Increase Fiber Intake: Consuming more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can help add bulk to the stool and promote regular bowel movements. Aim for 25-30 grams of fiber per day.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drinking plenty of water throughout the day helps keep stool soft and easier to pass. Aim for at least eight glasses of water daily.
  • Limit Low-Fiber Foods: Reduce the intake of processed foods, dairy products, and red meat, which can contribute to constipation.

Lifestyle Modifications

  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity can stimulate intestinal function and improve bowel movements. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.
  • Establish a Routine: Try to have a regular time each day to sit on the toilet, especially after meals, to take advantage of the body’s natural digestive rhythm.
  • Respond Promptly to the Urge: Don’t ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. Go to the bathroom as soon as you feel the need.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

  • Fiber Supplements: Products like psyllium (Metamucil) or methylcellulose (Citrucel) can help increase stool bulk and frequency of bowel movements.
  • Stool Softeners: Docusate sodium (Colace) helps add moisture to stool, making it easier to pass.
  • Laxatives: Use with caution and under a doctor’s guidance. There are different types of laxatives, including:
  • Osmotic Laxatives: Polyethylene glycol (Miralax) draws water into the bowel to soften stool.
  • Stimulant Laxatives: Senna (Senokot) and bisacodyl (Dulcolax) stimulate bowel movements by increasing intestinal muscle contractions.
  • Lubricant Laxatives: Mineral oil can help stool move more easily through the intestines.

Medical Interventions

  • Prescription Medications: For chronic constipation, medications such as lubiprostone (Amitiza) or linaclotide (Linzess) may be prescribed to increase fluid secretion in the intestines and improve bowel function.
  • Biofeedback Therapy: For those with pelvic floor dysfunction, biofeedback can help retrain the muscles involved in bowel movements.
  • Surgery: In rare cases, surgery may be necessary to remove a blockage or to treat structural issues in the colon.


Constipation is a common condition that can often be managed effectively with lifestyle and dietary changes. Recognizing the early signs of constipation can help you address the condition promptly, preventing it from becoming more severe. If lifestyle changes and over-the-counter remedies do not relieve your symptoms, it is important to consult with a healthcare provider to explore additional treatment options and rule out any underlying conditions. Regular monitoring and proactive management can help maintain healthy bowel function and improve your quality of life.