Managing Constipation After Surgery

Medically reviewed by Nancy Choi, MD on November 21, 2017Written by Annette McDermott on September 1, 2015

Overview

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:

There are many causes of constipation. Keep reading to find out potential causes of constipation after surgery 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.

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

Postoperative narcotics slow down the motility of your gut, so try to limit your use of them. Studies shows that nearly 40 percent of people taking opioids experience constipation. If you can tolerate the pain and your doctor approves, opt for ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) instead.

Constipation treatments to try after surgery

After surgery, you should also plan to take a stool softener, such as docusate (Colace). 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 return home.

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

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.

What to eat before and after surgery

A high-fiber diet can help you avoid being constipated before surgery. That, in turn, can help you to avoid postoperative constipation.

You should also drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, in the days leading up to surgery and after.

You may also want to add prunes and prune juice to your postsurgery diet.

A high-fiber diet may include:

Avoid constipating foods. These include:

When to call the doctor

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

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.

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

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.

Most cases of postsurgical 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. Take these steps:

  • Work with your doctor to create a presurgery and postsurgery diet and treatment plan.
  • Be sure to stay hydrated.
  • 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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