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Health Facts: Constipation

Created: 03/10/2015
Last Updated: 03/11/2015

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Constipation is generally defined as a condition in which a person has fewer than three bowel movements per week, difficulty passing bowel movements, or a combination of both. Constipation that keeps coming back may indicate a chronic condition, such as chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC) or irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C). CIC is chronic constipation with no known cause, and IBS-C is one of the three major subtypes of IBS.


The symptoms of constipation include:

  1. Hard or lumpy stools
  2. Having fewer than three bowel movements per week
  3. Straining to have bowel movements
  4. Infrequent and incomplete bowel movements
  5. In some cases, feeling bloated or having abdominal discomfort

Facts to Know

Constipation is the most common digestive complaint in the United States and one of the most common reasons people visit their health care providers. As many as 35 million adults suffer from CIC and as many as 13 million adults suffer from IBS-C.

The impact of constipation is not limited to the bathroom: there is data to suggest people with constipation experience activity impairment and a loss of work productivity. In addition, one study found the annual cost of treating constipation in America to be approximately $235 million.

The most common causes of constipation include stress, lack of exercise, poor diet with too little dietary fiber and inadequate water intake. Pregnancy, certain medications, and any disruptions to your normal routine—such as travel—can also lead to constipation. In rare cases, constipation can signal a more serious condition, such as bowel obstruction, cancer, neurological disease or certain gastrointestinal or metabolic diseases. Recurring constipation could also indicate a condition like chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC) or irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C).

There is no cure for constipation. However, in many cases, symptoms can be controlled with lifestyle changes. These modifications include regular exercise and increasing dietary fiber and water intake. A health care provider may suggest over-the-counter remedies, such as stool softeners or laxatives, for occasional constipation. For constipation symptoms that keep coming back, he or she may prescribe medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for adults with IBS-C or CIC.

An open, honest discussion with a health care professional about symptoms can provide the best chances for managing the condition.

Want to learn more about constipation?
Visit www.HealthyWomen.org/BM or www.AboutYourGut.com

This program was supported by Actavis and Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.