U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Symptoms and Causes of Constipation

What are the symptoms of constipation?​

The most common symptoms of constipation are
  • fewer-than-normal bowel movements
  • stool that is difficult or painful to pass
  • pain or bloating in your abdomen

What causes constipation?

Constipation can happen for many reasons, and constipation may have more than one cause at a time. Among the most common causes of constipation are
  • slow movement of stool through the colon
  • delayed emptying of the colon from pelvic disorders, especially in women
  • a form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that has symptoms of both IBS and constipation, also called IBS with constipation, or IBS-C.

Constipation may become worse because of the following factors:

Diets low in fiber

Fiber helps stool stay soft. Drink liquids to help fiber keep stool soft.

Older adults commonly have constipation because of limited dietary fiber, lack of physical activity, and medications.

Lack of physical activity

If you don’t exercise or move around regularly you may get constipated. For example, people may be less active because they
  • have other health problems
  • sit all day and don’t exercise regularly
  • have to stay in bed most of the time because of an illness or accident


Some medicines that doctors prescribe to treat other health problems can cause constipation. Medicines that can cause constipation include
  • antacids—used to neutralize stomach acid—that contain aluminum and calcium
  • anticholinergics—used to treat muscle spasms in the intestines
  • anticonvulsants—used to decrease abnormal electrical activity in the brain to prevent seizures
  • antispasmodics—used to reduce muscle spasms in the intestines
  • calcium channel blockers—used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease
  • diuretics—used to help the kidneys remove fluid from the blood
  • iron supplements—used to build up higher iron levels in the blood
  • medicines used to treat Parkinson’s disease
  • narcotics—used to treat severe pain
  • some medicines used to treat depression

Life changes or daily routine changes

Constipation can happen when your life or daily routine changes. For example, your bowel movements can change
  • when you travel
  • if you become pregnant
  • as you get older

Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement

If you ignore the urge to have a bowel movement, over time, you may stop feeling the need to have one. You may delay having a bowel movement because you do not want to use toilets outside of your home, do not have access to a toilet, or may feel you are too busy. This habit can lead to constipation.

Certain health problems

Some health problems can make stool move more slowly through your colon, rectum, or anus, causing constipation. These health problems include
  • disorders that affect your brain and spine, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • spinal cord or brain injuries
  • diabetes​
  • hypothyroidism

Gastrointestinal (GI) tract problems

Problems​ in your GI tract that compress or narrow your colon and rectum can cause constipation. These problems include

Functional GI disorders

Functional GI disorders happen when your GI tract behaves in an abnormal way, yet without evidence of damage due to a disease. For example, IBS​ is a common functional GI disorder, and many people with IBS can have IBS with constipation.

November 13, 2014​​​​​​​​​​​