Overview of Constipation

Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. It is frequently caused by a disturbance of how the colon works. The function of the colon is to remove water from the waste material that passes from the small intestine into the colon. It serves as a storage area for waste material and helps move and expel stool from the body. Constipation occurs when too much water is removed by the colon, causing dry or hard stools that are difficult to expel. You may be constipated if you are having fewer bowel movements than usual, it takes a long time to pass stools, and they are hard. Normal bowel movements vary from three times daily to three times weekly.

Signs and Symptoms

Below is a list of common signs and symptoms of constipation:

  • Hard stools that are difficult to pass
  • Pain with bowel movements
  • Feeling of being blocked or not having fully emptied the bowel
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Low back pain
  • Hemorrhoids and/or fissures
  • Less than 2 bowel movements a week
  • Rectal bleeding with bowel movements (seek medical evaluation)


Below is a list of common causes of constipation:

  • Irregular eating patterns
  • Insufficient fluids
  • Diet low in fiber and/or high in fats and sugars
  • Increased intake of caffeine and alcohol
  • Inactivity
  • Delaying the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Life changes: pregnancy, travel, aging
  • Drugs, including pain killers, antidepressants, tranquilizers, blood pressure medication, diuretics, iron supplements, calcium supplements and aluminum containing antacids
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Certain diseases which cause a narrowing of the colon
  • In many cases, no specific anatomic or functional causes are identified and the cause of constipation is said to be nonspecific.

What Can Be Done

Below is a list of suggestions for prevention and treatment of constipation:

  • Increase fiber including fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grain cereals and breads.
  • Increase fluids to at least one quart per day not including mealtime fluids. Avoid caffeine and alcohol which deplete body water stores.
  • Eat 3 meals per day at least 4 hours apart to keep the intestines stimulated which moves stools through the bowel.
  • Avoid a high-fat diet, including meats, dairy products, rich desserts or sugary sweets.
  • Do not ignore the urge to have a bowel movement.
  • Increase activity. Do things you enjoy and make them a part of your everyday life such as going for walks, jogging, taking care of your yard or being active in sports. Do things that keep you moving and active.
  • Use of stool softener as needed at bedtime.
  • Avoid frequent use of laxatives which will produce a sluggish (lazy) bowel in the long run.

How We Can Help

If you would like to be seen by SHCS staff, please contact our Appointment Desk to schedule an appointment. Also, our Advice Nurse service is available 24/7 at no charge for all UC Davis students to discuss health concerns and the need for medical and mental health care.