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Normal bowel movements can vary from three times a day to three times a week, depending on the person. But if you have less than three bowel movements per week or stools that are dry, hard, small and difficult or painful to pass, you may have constipation.1

There are many factors that can lead to constipation, including:2

  • Not consuming enough fiber and/or water
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Ignoring or delaying the urge to pass a stool
  • Stress or changes to your daily routine
  • Pregnancy
  • Some medications
  • Colon cancer
  • Underactive thyroid
  • Nervous system or mental health disorders
  • Gastrointestinal tract problems, such as celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome

Most people experience constipation at some point in their lives and, typically, it isn’t a cause for concern. However, chronic constipation can sometimes be caused by more serious medical issues, so it’s best to talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. In addition, constipation may lead to other complications, such as:1

Anal fissures are tears in the skin of your anus that can cause pain, itching and bleeding with bowel movements.

Hemorrhoids are enlarged, swollen and inflamed blood vessels in the anus and lower rectum.

Sometimes, hard stool can accumulate and get stuck in your intestines, causing fecal impaction.

Rectal prolapse is a rare condition where a small portion of the rectum (the lower end of the intestine) stretches and protrudes from the anus.

The first step to treating constipation usually starts with making lifestyle changes, such as eating more fiber-rich foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains; drinking plenty of water; and exercising most days of the week to boost muscle activity in your intestines.

Depending on the cause, severity and duration of your constipation, your doctor may also recommend surgery, biofeedback or laxatives, including fiber supplements, lubricants that help the stool pass through your intestines more easily, stool softeners or osmotic agents that help stool retain fluid, making them softer.1, 3

1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House (NDDIC). Constipation. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/constipation/. Accessed August 27, 2014.
2. National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. Constipation. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003125.htm. Accessed August 27, 2014.
3. Mayo Clinic. Diseases and Conditions. Constipation. Treatment and Drugs. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/constipation/basics/treatment/con-20032773. Accessed August 27, 2014.

Information provided is for general background purposes and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment by a trained professional. You should always consult your physician about any healthcare questions you may have, especially before trying a new medication, diet, fitness program, or approach to healthcare issues.
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