Bowel movements vary in frequency among healthy people, ranging from three times per day to three times per week. Most people fall somewhere in between these norms, passing stools without discomfort or straining. However, constipation can occur when stools become infrequent or difficult to pass. This can lead to dry and hardened stools, as well as abdominal discomfort. In many cases, constipation is a result of dietary or lifestyle factors. In some cases, however, frequent constipation may be a sign of an underlying disorder.

Nearly everyone experiences constipation from time to time. But did you know that approximately 3 million people in the U.S. suffer with chronic or frequent constipation? The condition can affect anyone at any age, but women and seniors over age 65 are at highest risk.


Frequently Asked Questions

When should I notify a gastroenterologist about my constipation?

According to the American Gastroenterological Association, everyone must determine the frequency of bowel movements that is normal for them. As a general rule, however, a person is said to be constipated if more than 3 days has passed between bowel movements or if stools are particular hard to pass.

You should talk to your doctor about constipation if you have severe symptoms or if your infrequent bowel movements have persisted for more than three weeks without improvement. Schedule an appointment right away if your constipation is associated with unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain or if you have symptoms that become disabling.

How will a doctor determine the cause of my constipation?

Your doctor will first evaluate your eating and activity habits to determine if the addition of fiber, liquids or exercise could help relieve your constipation. The doctor may also review any current medications you may be taking, as certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs may cause constipation. If lifestyle factors and side effects are ruled out, your doctor may perform tests to determine if your constipation is caused by an underlying disorder.

Examples of common GI tests for frequent constipation may include stool testing, abdominal x-rays and colonoscopy. In some cases, an anorectal motility study may be performed to determine whether the pelvic floor muscles are properly relaxing and contracting.

How does a GI doctor treat constipation?

In addition to recommending lifestyle changes, a doctor may prescribe medication to help restore proper bowel function. In many cases, this includes treating underlying causes rather than the symptoms. For example, constipation caused by hypothyroidism may improve with hormone replacement therapy. In some cases, patients require medication to help with regulation. Laxatives are often a last resort as a means of regulating the bowels, as long-term use of stimulant laxatives may lead to dependency.