You may feel awkward addressing what feels like a very personal concern, but if you’re suffering from constipation, you’re actually one of 42 million people in the US with this problem, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. And while occasional bouts of this uncomfortable digestive issue can usually be managed effectively with over-the-counter remedies, sometimes a trip to the doctor could be helpful. Here’s how to identify when you should consult your doctor about your constipation.

Constipation Causes

Constipation can be the result of any number of dietary problems, including not eating enough fiber or drinking enough water, or simply changing your diet or routine and throwing off your digestive system in the process, explains Eamonn Quigley, MD, Medical Director, The Lynda K. and David M. Underwood Center for Digestive Disorders at Houston Methodist Hospital. Additionally, as you get older, your body may also become more prone to changes in bowel function. Constipation can also be caused by other health issues, such as neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, and thyroid disorders. It can also be a side effect of some medications. But some people may find themselves constipated without having any of these risk factors.

Common Symptoms of Constipation

You probably associate constipation with difficulty having a bowel movement. But did you know that it can also cause your abdomen to become bloated and swollen? While the symptoms are unpleasant, the good news is that such symptoms are not usually cause for concern, says Quigley.

When to See a Doctor

It’s not the length of the constipation or how frequently you experience symptoms that usually indicates a bigger problem; instead, a noticeable change in your elimination (or bowel movement) patterns is often a warning sign that your constipation could be a cause for concern: "I would be more concerned by a sudden or recent change in bowel habit than by a long history [of constipation]," Quigley says. "For example, a 55-year old or older individual who previously was quite regular and who now becomes constipated," should see a doctor for evaluation and to rule out other, more serious, conditions.

What Else Could it Be?

There are several other conditions that resemble constipation. For instance, one form of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)—known as constipation-predominant IBS—causes constipation. In this case, you would likely experience pain along with the bowel problems, and this should alert you to see your doctor.

"Colon cancer can also present as constipation," Quigley says. Some of the warning signs to look out for include bleeding, anemia, and weight loss. Any of these symptoms should be taken seriously.

What to Tell Your Doctor

When you see your doctor, Quigley suggests you do the following: "Make sure the doctor understands exactly and completely what your symptoms are, and how they affect your daily life. Also tell the doctor [about] all the treatments that you have tried, and [your doctor should] know what medications you are on."

Once your doctor has all of the information, he or she will be able to run some tests to diagnose the cause of your constipation (if needed), and recommend the best course of treatment for your specific situation.

Eamonn Quigley, MD, reviewed this article. 


Eamonn Quigley, MD, Medical Director, The Lynda K. and David M. Underwood Center for Digestive Disorders at Houston Methodist Hospital. Email interview, June 2, 2014. 

"Constipation." National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Page last modified May 18, 2014.