You’re bloated and blocked. You strain on the toilet, but … nothing. You’re constipated.
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Constipation is common. For some people, it’s a chronic condition. For others, it’s a brief occurrence caused by stress, medications, a poor diet, lifestyle choices or a medical condition or surgery, says colorectal surgeon Massarat Zutshi, MD.
But no matter the cause, you can find relief — it’s just a matter of how.
Sometimes, the solution is simple
Most cases of acute constipation happen because you are not eating enough of the right foods (or in the right quantities), drinking enough water or getting enough exercise. So the fixes are simple: Move more, drink more water and add fiber to your diet (or take it as a supplement) to add bulk to your stool.
Some people have success taking probiotics, too, which can change the composition of the bacteria in the gut.
Make time to move your bowels
Try waking up earlier to eat breakfast and then move your bowels. Food can stimulate the need to go, and you probably feel most relaxed in your home bathroom.
But don’t get too relaxed in there — the more time you spend on the toilet, the more likely you are to strain for bowel movements. “Do not take your cell phone into the bathroom with you, or work on your computer or read a book,” Dr. Zutshi advises.
And if you feel the urge to go when you’re out an about, don’t avoid using a public restroom. Delaying a bowel movement can actually make constipation worse.
What’s on your plate?
Have you changed your diet recently? Sometimes drastic changes to what you eat can cause constipation.
For example, if you suddenly cut all fat from your diet, it’s easy to get blocked up. You don’t want to overdo fat, but you need a little to move things through your bowel.
Fiber is not always the answer
If adding fiber to your diet in the form of food or supplements makes you more bloated and blocked than before, there are a number of potential reasons. For example, in “slow transit constipation,” a condition where the bowel does not move things quickly through, fiber sits in your gut and can make you feel worse.
Long story short: If fiber makes you worse, don’t just add more. See your doctor.
Know when to see a doctor
Sometimes simple changes are not enough. If your constipation doesn’t respond to treatments or changes in your diet, and if it lasts for weeks or months, Dr. Zutshi recommends getting yourself checked out to exclude more serious medical causes.
It’s especially important to see a professional if you have other symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, cramping or spasms.
Chronic constipation can be a sign of conditions such as:
- Celiac disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Opioid-induced constipation is its own entity and should also be treated by a physician, Dr. Zutshi says.
For serious constipation, there are options
If your constipation is severe and does not improve with changes to your diet and lifestyle, there may be other options that you can discuss with your doctor. Surgery is the very last option.
A wide range of laxatives are available, plus there are pro-motility drugs that a doctor can prescribe. Sometimes at-home remedies can bring relief, too, like dietary vegetable or mineral oil to lubricate the bowels.
Here’s the bottom line: Try simple fixes first, but if they fail, don’t suffer needlessly. If you think your bowel movements are not what you would consider normal, discuss it first with your primary care physician, who can talk with you about treatments or refer you to a specialist who can help get your bowels moving again.