What is Constipation?

What is Constipation?

Constipation is when a person has fewer than three bowel movements in a week. The rate of bowel movements varies from person to person, but typically three or more days between bowel movements is too long and may signal a constipation problem.

When a person has constipation, the stools are hard and dry and are difficult and often painful to pass. Occasional constipation is common, but some people experience severe or chronic constipation that can affect their ability to function normally. However, there are effective ways to prevent or relieve constipation.

Constipation can also affect children. When it happens, a pediatrician or family doctor can help treat constipation symptoms.

Types of Constipation


Primary constipation starts as a result of a change in diet, mobility, lifestyle, or for an unknown reason, and secondary constipation is a result of other conditions. The types of constipation are:

  • Primary constipation /primary-care/constipation​Normal transit constipation is the most common form of constipation. While stool may pass through the colon normally, patients may still feel constipated and bloated, and experience hard stools, abdominal pain, or discomfort. The causes of normal transit constipation may be unknown.
    • Slow transit constipation is a long delay in passing stools through the colon. It may be caused by problems with the digestive tract or other physiological reasons, which make pushing stools through difficult.
    • Outlet constipation. Some patients have difficulty in discharging stools from the rectum, which may be caused by problems with rectal function or other issues.
  • Secondary constipation is a result of other conditions such as colorectal cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, certain medications, low fiber diet, or an inactive lifestyle.

Signs & Symptoms of Constipation


Occasional constipation is common, but when people have symptoms of infrequent bowel movements that last too long and do not go away with self-care, they should speak with a doctor. A primary care doctor can help treat constipation symptoms and, if needed, can refer patients to a specialist.

If a child is experiencing constipation symptoms, a pediatrician can help address these symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of constipation include:

  • Having fewer than three stools in a week
  • Feeling bloated
  • Having abdominal discomfort or pain
  • Stools are hard and dry
  • Difficulty passing stools through the rectum
  • Difficulty emptying the digestive tract completely

What Causes Constipation?


Causes of constipation can be related to diet and lifestyle, certain medications, a person’s medical history, or health conditions they may have.

  • Diet and lifestyle changes. A low fiber diet, dehydration, or an inactive lifestyle can cause constipation.
  • Medications. Certain medications can cause constipation. Examples include pain medications (opiates), some high blood pressure medications (antihypertensive agents), certain antidepressants, iron supplements, and Parkinson’s disease drugs.
  • Medical conditions. Constipation can also be caused by diseases and medical conditions, including:
    • Blockages in the colon or rectum that may slow or stop stool movement. These include colorectal cancer, blockage in the intestines, and colon narrowing.
    • Endocrine (hormonal) conditions and changes. Causes include: diabetes, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), and pregnancy.
    • Neurological problems that affect the colon and rectum. Causes include: nerve damage, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.
    • Pelvic muscles problems can also cause difficulty with bowel movements.

Risk Factors for Constipation

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase the risk of developing chronic constipation include:

  • Diet that is low in dietary fiber
  • Lifestyle that does not include enough physical activity
  • Dehydration
  • Medications may cause constipation, including medications to lower blood pressure, sedatives, pain medications, and certain antidepressants
  • Age. Older people are at a greater risk of having chronic constipation.
  • Gender. Women tend to have constipation more often than men.

How Do I Prevent Constipation?

  • Eating a healthy diet including high-fiber foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and beans
  • Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • Being physically active
  • Keeping a regular schedule that allows time for bowel movements
  • Taking supplements, stool softeners, or laxatives if needed. Your primary care doctor can recommend supplements or medications or adjust some of your medications that may cause constipation.
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Constipation Care

At NewYork-Presbyterian we offer programs that meet the needs of the communities we serve. With family medicine doctors, internists, and pediatricians at more than 15 practices throughout Manhattan, our primary care practices heal, counsel, and monitor the health of patients of all ages.

Learn more about constipation and things you can do to improve your symptoms and promote regular bowel movements. If these don’t work, your primary care doctor can help resolve your symptoms through treatment for constipation. If further digestive system care is needed, your primary care doctor will refer you to a NewYork-Presbyterian specialist. Contact us to make an appointment.