Constipation: Signs and Symptoms

Medical professionals define constipation in three different categories.

  1. Difficult or infrequent bowel movements
  2. Hardness of the stool
  3. Feeling of incomplete evacuation of feces

Many concerns arise in regard to bowel movements. Some worry that not having a bowel movement is an issue and that they have constipation. Others experience changes in stool appearance, size, shape, color, or consistency. Some also feel they do not fully move the stool.
Other people have various symptoms associated with constipation due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and other digestive conditions.

In this article, we’ll review what constipation is, its symptoms, and when to see a doctor.

constipation - annual calendar

True or False: You Need to Have a Bowel Movement Every Day

Everyone is different, especially when it comes to bowel movements. The frequency varies from person to person and varies with age, diet, social influences, and cultural factors. In Western countries, it’s normal for a person to have bowel movements two to three times a day or two to three times a week. It’s important to consider what is “normal” for your body.

If you usually have a couple of bowel movements a day and suddenly pass stool only a few times a week you may have concerns. This is also true if the stool looks different, is smellier, or even sticky. If this is the case, you should talk to your doctor.

constipation - little girl with toilet paper

Signs and Symptoms of Constipation in Children

Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of constipation in children:

  • Having less than 3 bowel movements per week
  • The stool looks hard, dry, and is difficult to pass
  • There may be pain associated with defection, in the rectal area and/or abdominal pain
  • The child may avoid going to the bathroom in fear of pain
  • They may cross their legs or twist their body in an attempt to hold the stool
  • You can see a few drops of liquid stool in the child’s underwear
  • Crying, irritability, fussiness, and decreased appetite

Signs and Symptoms of Constipation in Adults

Adults will experience similar signs and symptoms. One may have constipation if they experience these symptoms:

Adults are more aware of how their bodies work and can connect symptoms with triggers. Some of these triggers include food, medication, or changing environments, especially while traveling.

Other Symptoms Associated with Constipation

It’s also important to pay attention to the associated symptoms of constipation. Be sure to communicate them to your doctor as they may suggest an underlying issue.

For example, blood in or on the stool, pain in the abdomen or rectal area, abdominal cramps, and bloating are symptoms. In some cases, constipation may alternate with diarrhea and could worsen over time.

Unexplained weight loss or weight gain, fatigue, and joint or muscle aches can occur. Some people may also have an intolerance to cold.

The Mayo Clinic released an online quiz to track symptoms and discover the causes.

constipation - woman hunching over toilet in pain

What are the Signs of Severe Constipation (Obstipation)?

Obstipation or “obstructive constipation” suggests a severe form of constipation. This is when a person simply cannot have a bowel movement for several days even when they feel the need for one. There is also the inability to pass gas, leading to significant bloating. Abdominal and rectal pain, as well as nausea and vomiting, may also be present. Obstipation is more likely to cause fatigue and malaise, dehydration, and feeling full.

Treating obstipation is important because it can get worse and cause complications. Besides chronic unmanaged constipation, there are multiple causes of obstipation including:

  • Fecal impaction – when the stool cannot pass because it’s too hard and dry
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Intestine bulging through the abdominal wall (hernia)
  • Intestinal polyps
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Cancer

Red Flag Symptoms

There are some symptoms those with constipation may experience that requires a doctor. If you experience the following symptoms, investigate your condition further.

  • Blood in the stool
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Distended abdomen
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Low back pain
  • Abdominal pain that becomes worse during a bowel movement
  • Severe constipation
  • Constipation in elderly with other comorbid conditions

In case of a rectal prolapse, which is when part of the intestine comes out of the anus, you’ll need medical attention. Obstipation also requires a medical evaluation.

Do not ignore constipation if you experience it. Consult a healthcare provider if you notice it’s an ongoing problem. The main function of a bowel movement is to eliminate waste products from food. The body absorbs nutrients and water from our food. If this waste stays, toxins accumulate in the bowel and cause complications.

Stools that stay for too long in the bowel tend to become drier and hard to pass. Therefore, the condition worsens over time. Fortunately, there are treatment options to relieve constipation.