Constipation means something slightly different to each person. In general, symptoms include:

  • infrequent bowel movements
  • difficult-to-pass or hard stools that cause straining
  • a feeling of incomplete emptying of the bowel after a bowel movement

Nearly everyone becomes constipated at one time or another. Most of the time, it’s nothing to worry about. A change in routine, traveling, eating poorly, stress, becoming a bit dehydrated, or not getting enough exercise can all lead to the occasional bout of constipation.

You can usually solve your own constipation problems by modifying your diet to include more fiber-rich foods, exercising, drinking more water, or taking an over-the-counter medication. This is called acute or short-term constipation.

However, if your constipation symptoms go on for more than three months and you’ve already tried making diet and lifestyle changes, you may have chronic constipation. It’s probably time to visit your doctor to check for underlying conditions and to get some relief.

Making an appointment

You may find it embarrassing to talk to someone about constipation, even your doctor. Keep in mind that your doctor sees patients on a daily basis and is familiar with these types of symptoms. It’s important to have an honest conversation with your doctor. It may be the only way to get the treatment you need.

In general, you should try some lifestyle changes for your constipation before making an appointment with a doctor. Try drinking more water, eating more fiber, or taking a mild laxative and see how it goes. If it’s been a week since your last bowel movement or constipation keeps coming and going for more than three months, it’s a good time to call your doctor to schedule an in-office visit.

Before your visit, you may want to begin writing down information about your symptoms. This makes it easier to provide an accurate description of your bowel movements when you visit a doctor.

Describing your symptoms

Keep in mind that there is no “normal” number of bowel movements. What’s considered regular is different from person to person. For some, it means having a bowel movement twice a day. For others, it means having a bowel movement three or four times a week.

Constipation can mean different things to different people, so it’s important to be specific when describing your symptoms to a doctor. You might find it gross to describe a bowel movement out loud, but your doctor won’t be able to help you if they don’t know what’s going on.

During your doctor’s visit, try to communicate the following information about your symptoms:

  • how often you have bowel movement and if your symptoms are continuous or off and on
  • if you’re straining while having a bowel movement
  • if your stools are lumpy or hard
  • if you have a sensation of incomplete evacuation after a bowel movement
  • if you have a feeling of blockage
  • if you ever have to use your fingers or other manual maneuvers to help pass stool
  • if you experience any other symptoms, like abdominal pain, gas, bloating, vomiting, or blood in your stool or on the toilet paper
  • if you’ve recently lost weight without trying

Questions to ask your doctor

Try to prepare a list of questions to ask your doctor before your visit. Sometimes, doctor appointments can be rushed, or you might feel too nervous and forget what you wanted to ask. Coming with a list can help.

Here are some questions you can ask:

  • What else could be causing my symptoms?
  • Are more diagnostic tests needed?
  • Is there anything I need to prepare for a diagnostic test, including dietary restrictions?
  • What treatments are available to manage my symptoms?
  • How long should I take a certain medication?
  • What are the side effects of such medications?
  • If the initial treatment doesn’t work, what are the next steps?
  • Could I have irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) or chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC)?
  • Should I stop taking any of my current medications, supplements, or vitamins?
  • How do I keep a journal of my bowel movements?
  • When can constipation be an emergency? Are there any specific symptoms to watch out for?
  • What foods should I avoid? What foods should I add to my diet?
  • Are there any other changes I should make to my lifestyle?
  • When can I expect to get my test results?
  • When should I schedule a follow-up visit?
  • Should I get a referral for a specialist (gastroenterologist)?

The bottom line

Don’t be afraid to see a doctor if you’re concerned about your bowel movements. If you decide to make an appointment, be sure you’re ready to talk about your symptoms and come prepared with some questions to ask so you don’t leave your appointment feeling confused.

While occasional bouts of constipation are completely normal, if your symptoms persist for months, it’s important to see your doctor. Although rare, allowing constipation issues to go unchecked for too long can lead to unpleasant complications such as hemorrhoids and rectal prolapse. If anything, constipation can put a damper on your social life. Get the treatment you need sooner rather than later.