While hard bowel movements happen to everyone from time to time, they can also be a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

In a perfect world, your stool would be soft and easy to pass every time you need to have a bowel movement. However, you may likely have hard bowel movements from time to time.

These are more difficult to pass than soft bowel movements and can, at times, be painful. Hard stools may be a sign of constipation.

Hard bowel movements could be due to dehydration or medication. But they may also be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

If you have hard stools, there are ways you can make your stools easier to pass at home.

You can have hard stools for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, a combination of factors is to blame.

Typically, your stool is made from waste products and undigested food material that combines with water to be eliminated via your intestines. This requires motility, or gastrointestinal movement, to help stool move along the digestive tract for elimination.

A problem with any or several of these digestive processes can cause hard stool.

Medications that cause hard stools

Sometimes hard stool is due to something you did (or didn’t) eat or medications you take. Examples include:

Diet and lifestyle causes of hard stools

Diet-related causes of hard stools include dehydration (not drinking enough water) and a low fiber diet.

Some potential lifestyle-related causes of hard stool include:

  • changing your diet
  • changing medications
  • not engaging in regular physical activity
  • traveling

Frequently ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement can cause your stool to become harder to pass. Holding back bowel movements can cause changes to your brain-gut communication, affecting your future urge to have a bowel movement.

Your stool can build up inside your digestive tract and become harder to pass.

Medical causes of hard stools

Sometimes, an underlying medical condition can cause hard stools. Examples of these conditions include:

Some of these conditions, such as an intestinal obstruction, can be a medical emergency. Because stool can’t get out, you can experience life threatening complications if your bowel leaks into your intestinal lining.

Serious symptoms of hard stool include rectal bleeding or blood in your stool. These can require emergency medical attention if bleeding persists.

Other hard stool symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain
  • difficulty passing gas
  • pain passing stools
  • straining when passing stools

Many of these symptoms can make you afraid to pass any other stools. This fear can worsen constipation.

Hard stool with blood

If your stool is especially tough to pass, it’s not uncommon to see some streaking of blood present in the stool. Hard stool can create irritation and micro-tears in the intestinal lining that cause bleeding. Also, you can experience bleeding from somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract causing blood in your stool.

If the blood is more than streaking or continues beyond a day, see a doctor to make sure it isn’t a sign of an underlying medical condition.

Hard black stool

Sometimes hard stool may appear black and tarry. This could indicate the presence of bleeding in a higher area of the digestive tract, such as the stomach or esophagus. Some medications you take, such as iron supplements, can also cause dark stools.

Hard stools can build up in your digestive tract, causing damage to its lining. Complications from hard stool can include:

Prevent these from occurring by keeping stool as soft as possible.

If you don’t have blood in your stool or severe pain, you may want to start with trying to soften your stool at home.

Home remedies

Examples of home remedies to soften stools include:

  • Abdominal massage: An abdominal massage may help stimulate your bowels if they’re not moving enough to help stool digest more quickly. Rubbing the stomach in a circular motion can help.
  • Drink more water: Increasing water in your digestive tract can make stool softer and easier to pass. Even a slight difference in water content can have an effect. A good sign you’re drinking enough water is if your urine is pale yellow in color.
  • Eat more fiber: Fiber can add bulk to the stool, which can stimulate your bowels and help move stool through the digestive tract. However, adding too much fiber at once can have the opposite effect and cause bloating and abdominal discomfort.
  • Avoid empty-calorie, low fiber foods: Many low fiber foods don’t add much nutritional value to your diet. Avoid fast food, processed foods, and chips.
  • Exercise: Physical activity can help stimulate your bowels.

Medical treatment

Examples of medications a doctor may prescribe or recommend include:

  • Bulk-forming agents: Medications like Citrucel or FiberCon can help add bulk to stool, making it easier to pass.
  • Osmotic agents: Medications like MiraLAX attract water to the stool, making it easier to pass.
  • Stool softeners: Substances like docusate sodium (Colace) help soften hard stool so it isn’t so hard to pass.

Ideally, these methods are a short-term solution. If your hard stool causes significant medical problems, such as an intestinal blockage or rectal prolapse, you may require surgery. That’s usually a last attempt to correct an underlying problem.

Contact a doctor if:

  • you haven’t had a bowel movement in 4 days
  • home remedies don’t work
  • you have a family history of colon cancer

You may need to seek emergency medical attention if you see blood in your stool that seems to be increasing in amount.

Otherwise, you should seek medical help if your hard stools are bothering you. If you’re having symptoms like bloating, pain, and discomfort, talking with a doctor can help.

Hard poop can be a symptom of lifestyle factors, medications taken, or an underlying medical condition. Several different approaches to treatment can make stool easier to pass.

Starting these sooner rather than later can help prevent serious medical problems, such as a bowel obstruction.