Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Constipation: What You Should Know


Am Fam Physician. 2005 Dec 1;72(11):2285.

  See related article on constipation.

What is constipation?

Constipation is when you have fewer bowel movements than usual. You also may have hard, dry stools. If you don’t have a bowel movement every day, this does not mean you are constipated. Constipation usually means you have fewer than three stools each week.

Who gets constipated and why?

Anyone can get constipated, but it happens most often to older adults and to women who are pregnant. Constipation can happen when stool moves too slowly through the body. Too much water from the stool is then soaked up into your bowels and leads to hard, dry stools.

Constipation can be caused by changes in diet, by not enough exercise, and by some medicines and illnesses.

How can I tell if I have constipation?

If you are constipated, you may have bowel movements fewer than three times a week and have hard, dry stools. You may also feel the need to strain with bowel movements. You may have stomach pain or fullness, bloating, or the feeling of rectal pressure. You may feel like your bowels have not been fully emptied. If you have any changes in your usual bowel pattern, talk to your doctor.

How can my doctor tell the cause of my constipation?

You should keep a day-by-day list to track the number, hardness, and pattern of your stools. Your doctor will ask you questions and examine you to find out what is causing your constipation. If the cause is unclear, your doctor may run some tests. One cause of constipation is a blockage of the intestines. An x-ray may be ordered by your doctor to find out for sure.

What can I do if I am constipated?

There are several things you can do to help keep your stools regular:

  1. Add more fiber to your diet. Fiber is found in foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grain breads, and high-fiber cereal.

  2. Drink at least six to eight glasses of water each day.

  3. Exercise every day.

  4. Try to have a bowel movement at about the same time every day. A good time is first thing in the morning or after meals.

If these things do not help, your doctor may recommend that you take a laxative or medicine to soften your stools.

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2005 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions


May 2022

Access the latest issue of American Family Physician

Read the Issue

Email Alerts

Don't miss a single issue. Sign up for the free AFP email table of contents.

Sign Up Now

Navigate this Article