What is constipation?
Constipation occurs when your bowel movements become less frequent (fewer than three times per week) or are difficult to pass. This decrease in bowel movements can last for several weeks or longer. Sometimes your stools can be hard and dry.
Constipation is one of the most common digestive problems in the United States. Approximately 16 out of every 100 American adults experience symptoms of constipation, estimates the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Regular massages can relieve constipation by helping you release gas and waste products. They may also help treat any underlying or accompanying conditions. For example, regular massage can reduce stress and in turn reduce pain associated with irritable bowel syndrome.
Abdominal massages are thought to be especially beneficial for constipation, but you may also find other types of massage help, too.
You can use castor, argan, or coconut oil for these massages. Or experiment with these essential oils for added benefit.
Research shows abdominal massage can be effective in treating chronic constipation. Studies have found it can:
- increase the frequency of bowel movements
- decrease colonic transit time
- relieve pain and discomfort
Abdominal massage has also been shown to stimulate the muscle contractions that help pass a bowel movement in people with postsurgical ileus. This is a temporary lack of movement of the intestines that can lead to an intestinal obstruction.
Here’s how to massage your abdomen:
- Lie on your back and use both hands to put gentle pressure on your abdomen.
- Start at the right lower side of your abdomen. Slowly make circles in a clockwise direction using gentle pressure.
- Then, use the palm of your right hand to apply gentle pressure to the inside of your hip bone.
- Release and apply pressure to the right side, underneath the center of your ribs, and the left side.
- Switch to your left hand to apply pressure to the inside of your left hip bone.
- Use your fingertips on both hands to press into your abdomen and pull up.
- Again, start in the bottom right and move clockwise.
You can repeat any of these steps multiple times, but be careful not to overdo it.
Massages for the colon are sometimes referred to as deep abdominal massage or internal organ massage. Massage practitioners claim that colon massages can be used to:
- remove gas, blockages, and waste
- reduce abdominal fluid
- improve overall digestive health
However, there’s currently no evidence to prove these claims. If you want to try it, here’s how to perform a colon massage:
- Sit or lie down with your knees bent so your torso is loose and your belly is soft.
- Use your fingertips, knuckles, or the heel of your hand to stroke or apply pressure to your belly.
- Massage in the horseshoe shape of your colon.
- Start in the lower right corner of your abdominals and move up.
- Then massage under the ribs and over to the left, then down the left side, and then into the center.
- You can stop and focus on any part that needs extra attention.
There are several other massage options you can use to treat constipation. Massages that focus on other parts of the body may be used alone or combined with other types of massages. This allows for some variety as you check out which options best suit you.
Foot massages (reflexology)
Foot massages, also known as reflexology, may be used to treat constipation.
Research from 2003 found that children with constipation showed symptom improvements after receiving reflexology. The children had six 30-minute sessions over the course of six weeks. The treatment also helped with encopresis, also called fecal soiling.
To do this:
- Use your thumb to massage the middle of your right heel, working your way over to the outside edge.
- Then move upward toward the middle of your foot.
- Massage all the way across the middle of the right foot, then cross over to the left foot. Massage over to the outer edge.
- Then massage down along the edge and move inward to the center of the left heel.
- Finish by massaging over to the inside of the left foot.
Having a back or full-body massage may help relax the entire body. Full-body massages are helpful in improving digestion, relieving stress, and reducing muscle tension. All of these may be beneficial in treating constipation.
You’ll need to have a back massage by a massage therapist or your partner.
A 2015 study found that perineal self-acupressure paired with standard care was more effective than standard care alone in treating constipation. After doing the massage for four weeks, study participants showed improvements in:
- bowel function and health
- constipation-related quality of life
To do this:
- Use your first two fingers to press your perineal skin. It’s the area between the anus and either vagina or scrotum.
- Push on the skin in the direction of your anus.
- Continue pushing in pulses of 3 to 5 seconds each.
- You may want to do this massage when you feel the urge to have a bowel movement.
In babies, tummy massages can be used to:
- treat constipation
- promote relaxation
- reduce stress
Massages can also deepen the bond between you and your baby.
To do this, gently massage your baby’s stomach and lower abdomen in a clockwise direction. Do this a few times throughout the day.
Wait at least 45 minutes after feeding before massaging your baby. If your baby has any underlying conditions, talk to their doctor before trying infant massage.
See a doctor if your child:
- has stomach or rectal pain that lasts more than one hour
- is bleeding from the anus
- has constipation that lasts more than one week
- has signs of illness, such as vomiting and weakness
You can have a gentle abdominal massage for constipation while you’re pregnant during the second and third trimesters. Make sure to use soft movements. You can have your partner or a professional perform the massage, or you can do it yourself.
Avoid abdominal massage during the first trimester of pregnancy.
You can make lifestyle changes to prevent future constipation. Here are some tips:
- Drink plenty of water and caffeine-free fluids throughout the day.
- Drink a glass of water first thing in the morning.
- Include high-fiber foods in your diet, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
- Stay active and exercise regularly. Try to walk, cycle, or swim a few times per week.
- Take time for stress-reducing activities, such as meditation, yoga, or listening to binaural beats.
Going more than three days without a bowel movement isn’t considered healthy. If this happens every now and again, it’s usually not a cause for concern.
But see a doctor if you have:
- severe stomach pain
- frequent constipation
- constipation that lasts more than two weeks
You should also see a doctor if you:
- alternate between having diarrhea and constipation
- have sudden weight loss
- notice blood in your stools
Your doctor may prescribe medications or advise you to stop taking certain medications that can cause constipation.
More severe conditions will require a procedure to clear the colon, therapy to retrain the muscles, or surgery.
You can treat most mild cases of constipation by making lifestyle changes. Drink plenty of water, exercise often, and increase your fiber intake. You may want to continue having regular massages to prevent constipation in the future.
Keep an eye on your bowel movements so you notice constipation as soon as it starts. You might also try keeping a food diary so you can see how your diet affects your bowel movements.