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9 Common Causes of Constipation

January 11, 2024

It’s not pleasant to experience – or talk about – but constipation is one of the most common digestive issues.

But understanding what causes it and making a few lifestyle changes can ease constipation next time it strikes, says Dean Chang, MD, a gastroenterologist with the Hartford HealthCare Digestive Health Institute.

Here’s a refresher on what causes constipation and what you can do to treat it at home, or with the help of a doctor.

Connect with a digestive health specialist

Visit websiteCall 833-2DIGEST

Here are 9 common causes of constipation.

Constipation is defined as having less than three bowel movements a week. It can leave you with lower abdominal pain and hard or small stools, Dr. Chang explains.

There are a lot of possible causes for constipation, but here are a few of the most common:

  1. Irritable bowel syndrome
  2. Prescription medications, including opiate pain medicine, anxiety medications (benzodiazepines)
  3. Over-the-counter medications, including Benadryl, Tylenol or Advil PM, Dimetapp, Dramamine, or Unisom
  4. Lack of physical activity. This is common in people on bed rest, or after orthopedic surgery, trauma or abdominal surgery involving general anesthesia.
  5. Nervous system disruptions like spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or Hirschsprung’s diseases.
  6. Pregnancy
  7. Anorexia
  8. Hypothyroidism
  9. Low potassium levels

And the most common cause?

“We call it ‘idiopathic,’ meaning there is no known cause,” Dr. Chang says.

> Related: What Your Poop Says About Your Health

3 ways to avoid constipation.

As frustrating as “no cause” may be, there are a few things you can do to prevent constipation.

“I suggest after meals people try to take advantage of the body’s gastrocolic reflex – the natural signal to the body to move things down in the digestive tract – and have a bowel movement then,” Dr. Chang says. “But, you can’t rush it. You must relax.”

His other tips are:

  • Eat more fiber, drink more fluids. The recommended daily amount of dietary fiber is 20-35 grams.
  • Increase physical activity.
  • Talk with your provider about alternative medications if one leaves you constipated.

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When it’s time to see a doctor.

Typically, constipation can be handled with these basic changes.

You can also try using over-the-counter treatments like bulk fiber (Metamucil, Citrucel, psyllium) or stool softeners (Colace, Miralax, Benefiber). But long-term use of laxatives isn’t advised unless a doctor recommends it.

However, Dr. Chang suggests calling your primary care provider if:

  • Constipation is new to you.
  • Constipation gets chronic, bothersome, doesn’t respond to simple measures or interferes with your life.
  • There are other symptoms like rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss, diarrhea, anemia, nausea and vomiting, or change in stool shape.
  • There’s a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis).
  • You need to help ease the stool out, something he says is common for elderly women.

Connect with a digestive health specialist

Hartford HealthCare’s Digestive Health Institute is a comprehensive resource for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a full range of gastrointestinal disorders.

Visit website Call Call 833-2DIGEST