Constipation is difficult to define. There is no one definition of "normal." Not everybody has a bowel movement every day. Stool frequency or consistency varies from person to person.
Normal stools are soft and formed (not hard or lumpy). They are passed without urgency or straining. A sudden change from a person's normal pattern should be reported to a doctor.
Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Constipation
Long-term, repeated, or difficult to manage constipation itself is a symptom. It’s not a disease.
People who are constipated may experience any one or more of…
- reduced stool frequency,
- hard stools,
- difficulty passing stools,
- painful bowel movements, or
- feeling of incomplete emptying after defecation.
Constipation is a problem for about 1 in 6 children at some time. Boys and girls are equally affected.
The onset and duration of the constipation are important to consider. Most persons who see a doctor have had longstanding constipation symptoms. A sudden (acute) onset of symptoms should prompt a doctor visit. This is especially important if constipation is accompanied by pain, bleeding, or a recent change in bowel habit.
What's the Difference Between Constipation and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder. Symptoms include abdominal discomfort or pain, and a change in stool frequency or consistency. There is chronic or recurrent diarrhea, constipation, or both in alternation.
People with IBS may have symptoms that overlap with functional constipation. However, persons with functional constipation may not have the abdominal pain of IBS. Also, they would not have intervals of normal bowel habit and diarrhea with loose stools that can occur in IBS.
For more information about IBS, visit IFFGD's web site at www.aboutIBS.org.
Seeing a Doctor
When constipation starts abruptly, or becomes long-term and hard to manage, it is important talk to a doctor. Constipation can result from many things. It may result from an illness, obstruction, or abnormality. It may be a problem with nerve or muscle control.
Remember, constipation is a symptom. Work with a doctor to determine the cause. Then work out a treatment plan that best meets your needs and circumstances.
What to learn more? Start with these publications from IFFGD:
and discover much more in our publications library.
- Thompson, WG. Functional diarrhea, constipation, abdominal bloating, and gas. Functional GI disorders Education Program Guide, Chapter 3, IFFGD, 1997.
- Drossman DA, et al. Rome III: the functional gastrointestinal disorders. Gastroenterology. 2006 Apr;130(5).
- Kamm MA. Constipation and its management. BMJ. 2003;327:459-60.