When to See a Doctor for Constipation

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 27, 2022

Constipation is a very common condition. Symptoms of constipation include having fewer than three bowel movements per week. Stools that are hard, dry or lumpy are symptoms of constipation. Other symptoms of constipation are stools that are difficult or painful to pass, and feeling as if not all stool has passed when you have a bowel movement.

In many cases, constipation will get better on its own with diet and lifestyle changes. However, if your constipation is not improving, or if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, like significant weight loss, bloody stool, or severe abdominal pain, it’s important to reach out to your medical provider.  

When to See a Doctor for Constipation

If this is your first time experiencing constipation, it’s a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider for medical guidance (this is especially true for children).

Otherwise, if this is a chronic issue for you, there are specific symptoms that warrant further evaluation by your healthcare provider:

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Causes of Constipation

There are several possible causes of constipation. In many cases, constipation is caused by a change in diet or lifestyle. Other possible causes include:

  • Slow movement of stool through the colon
  • Pelvic floor disorders
  • Functional gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Certain medicines or supplements
  • Pregnancy
  • Travel
  • Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Diverticular disease
  • Celiac disease

At-Home Treatment

There are several things you can do at home to make stools softer and easier to pass, including:

  • Eating more high-fiber foods
  • Drinking plenty of water and other liquids
  • Taking a fiber supplement
  • Regular exercise
  • Use of a short-term over-the-counter (OTC) stool softener or laxative

Medical Treatment for Constipation

If your constipation doesn’t improve with over-the-counter and home treatment, you should reach out to your medical provider for care. Treatment options your provider may recommend include:

  • Prescription medicines: Certain prescription medicines can help to increase fluid in the digestive tract, reduce pain in the abdomen, and make stool softer. Examples of these medications include lubiprostone, linaclotide, and prucalopride.
  • Biofeedback therapy: Your provider may recommend biofeedback therapy to help you retrain your bowel muscles.
  • Surgery: In severe cases of constipation caused by blockage in your colon, your provider may recommend surgery. 

Risks of Untreated Constipation

Chronic constipation (or constipation that lasts for several weeks) can interfere with your daily tasks and quality of life. When left untreated, complications of untreated chronic constipation can lead to:

  • Anal fissures: Tears in the anal canal that can also cause bright red blood in stool.
  • Hemorrhoids: When blood vessels and veins around the anus and rectum become swollen or irritated.
  • Fecal impaction: When hardened stools remain in the bowel; this can cause severe discomfort and may require disimpaction (manual removal of stool from your rectum).
  • Rectal prolapse: A rare condition in which the rectum drops down through the anus; this is an emergency and requires surgery to fix.

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Certain lifestyle habits can help to prevent constipation, including:

  • Getting plenty of exercise
  • Eating foods rich in fiber
  • Drinking lots of fluids
  • Not ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Practicing regular stress management

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Frequently Asked Questions

When should you go to the doctor for constipation?
If this is your first time experiencing constipation, reach out to your healthcare provider for medical guidance (this recommendation is especially true for children experiencing first-time constipation). Otherwise, many mild cases of constipation can be treated at home with diet and lifestyle changes and OTC laxatives (when advised). However, if you’ve been constipated for several weeks or are experiencing additional symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, blood in stool, or vomiting, reach out to your provider for care.
How do you know if your constipation is serious?
Most cases of constipation are not serious or life-threatening. However, some symptoms can be signs of a more serious condition, including: blood in stool, vomiting, significant weight loss, inability to pass gas, major bloating, inability to pass gas, not having a bowel movement for several weeks.
How long is too long to be constipated?
What defines “regular” bowel movement habits will vary from person-to-person. For example, some people may have two bowel movements per day while others may only have a bowel movement every other day. If you’ve been unable to have a bowel movement for one week or longer, or have had a significant change in your stool habits, reach out to your provider for medical advice.
What will doctors do for constipation?
Depending on your symptoms, findings on physical examination, and medical history, there are several treatment options that your medical provider can recommend for constipation, including OTC medication, prescription medication, biofeedback therapy, and surgery.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.