Managing Constipation After Surgery

All surgeries are stressful and can take a major toll on your body. Constipation, an often-unanticipated side effect, can make the healing process even more uncomfortable.

Symptoms of constipation include:

  • having less than three bowel movements a week
  • experiencing a sudden decrease in bowel movements
  • needing to strain during bowel movements
  • bloating or increased gas
  • abdominal or rectal pain
  • having hard stools
  • feeling full after bowel movements

Keep reading to find out potential causes of constipation and how to deal with it.

Causes of Constipation After Surgery

Several factors may contribute to constipation after surgery. These include:

  • narcotic pain relievers, such as opioids
  • general anesthesia
  • an inflammatory stimulus, such as trauma or infection
  • an electrolyte, fluid, or glucose imbalance
  • prolonged inactivity
  • changes to diet, especially insufficient fiber

Dealing with Constipation After Surgery

Lifestyle and dietary changes may help prevent constipation after surgery or, at least, lessen its duration.

Did You Know?
Research shows that 40 percent of patients taking opiate drugs experience constipation.

Start walking around as soon as your doctor gives you the go-ahead. Not only can this help with constipation, but it can also help with the overall healing process while reducing the chances of dangerous blood clots.

Try to limit your postoperative narcotics use. If you can tolerate the pain and your doctor approves, opt for acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen instead.


You should also plan to take a stool softener, such as docusate (Colace), after surgery. A fiber laxative, such as psyllium (Metamucil), may also be helpful. Purchase a laxative or stool softener before your surgery so that you have it available when you get home.

Eat More Fiber
A high-fiber diet may include:
  • whole grains
  • fresh fruits
  • vegetables
  • beans

You should also drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, in the days leading up to surgery and after. A high-fiber diet can also help you avoid being constipated before surgery. That, in turn, can help you to avoid postoperative constipation. You may also want to add prunes and prune juice to your post-surgery diet.

Finally, avoid constipating foods. These may include:

  • dairy products
  • bananas
  • white bread or rice
  • processed foods

You may need stimulant laxatives, suppositories, or enemas to produce a bowel movement if you have severe constipation.

According to the Mayo Clinic, prescription drugs that draw water into your intestines to stimulate a bowel movement may be prescribed if over-the-counter laxatives aren’t enough. Linaclotide (Linzess) or lubiprostone (Amitiza) are two such medications.


When to Call the Doctor

Constipation can cause painful and potentially serious complications when left untreated. These may include:

  • anal fissures
  • hemorrhoids
  • fecal impaction
  • rectal prolapse

The amount of time it takes you to feel relief can be affected by the amount of time you spent under anesthesia. Your time spent on narcotic painkillers may also affect your recovery time.

You will usually experience relief within a few days if you’re taking stool softeners or fiber laxatives. Stimulant laxatives and suppositories should work within 24 hours. If not, notify your doctor so that further measures can be taken. Other reasons to contact your doctor include:

  • rectal bleeding
  • rectal pain
  • abdominal pain that is not directly related to the surgical incision

Be Proactive and Prepared

When it comes to constipation, relief can’t happen fast enough. The condition isn’t only painful. Straining can cause your surgical incision to reopen, which is a serious complication. Fortunately, most cases of post-surgical constipation clear up on their own without major complications.

The best way to prevent constipation or reduce the chance of developing it after surgery is to become educated and be proactive. Work with your doctor to create a pre- and post-surgery diet and treatment plan. Be sure to purchase a selection of high-fiber foods, stool softeners, or laxatives ahead of time so you’ll have them ready and available during your recovery.

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