Definition & Facts for Constipation

What is Constipation?

Constipation is a condition in which you typically have:

  • fewer than three bowel movements a week
  • bowel movements with stools that are hard, dry, and small, making them painful or difficult to pass

Some people think they are constipated if they don’t have a bowel movement every day. However, people can have different bowel movement patterns. Some people may have three bowel movements a day. Other people may only have three bowel movements a week.

Constipation most often lasts for only a short time and is not dangerous. You can take steps to prevent or relieve constipation.

How common is constipation?

Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal (GI) problems, affecting about 42 million people in the United States.1

Who is more likely to become constipated?

Constipation is common among all ages and populations in the United States, yet certain people are more likely to become constipated, including

  • women, especially during pregnancy or after giving birth
  • older adults
  • non-Caucasians
  • people with lower incomes
  • people who just had surgery
  • people taking medicines to treat depression or to relieve pain from things such as a broken bone, a pulled tooth, or back pain
Young pregnant woman looking into the refrigerator

What are the complications of constipation?

Chronic, or long-lasting, constipation can lead to health problems such as hemorrhoids, anal fissures, rectal prolapse, or fecal impaction.

Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are swollen and inflamed veins around your anus or in your lower rectum. You can develop hemorrhoids if you strain to have a bowel movement. If you have hemorrhoids, you may have bleeding in your rectum. You have bleeding in the rectum when you see bright red blood in your stool, on toilet paper, or in the toilet after a bowel movement.

Anal fissures

Anal fissures are small tears in your anus that may cause itching, pain, or bleeding.

Rectal prolapse

Rectal prolapse happens when your rectum slips so that it sticks out of your anus. Rectal prolapse can happen if you strain during bowel movements, among other reasons. Rectal prolapse may cause mucus to leak from your anus. Rectal prolapse is most common in older adults with a history of constipation, and is also more common in women than men, especially postmenopausal women.2

Fecal impaction

Fecal impaction happens when hard stool packs your intestine and rectum so tightly that the normal pushing action of your colon is not enough to push the stool out. Fecal impaction occurs most often in children and older adults.

References

November 2014
Share

This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.

This information is not copyrighted. The NIDDK encourages people to share this content freely.