If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), there’s a pretty good chance you’re frustrated and even irritated by your bladder and your bowels. Bladder dysfunction, which is when you find it difficult to hold in urine or feel the urge to urinate often, is a common side effect of MS along with bowel problems.

Approximately 80 percent of people with MS deal with some kind of bladder dysfunction. Constipation is the most common bowel complaint in MS, says Carrie Lyn Sammarco, DNP, a nurse practitioner at NYU Langone Multiple Sclerosis Comprehensive Care Center.

What is constipation?

Constipation can affect anyone at anytime. It is generally characterized by the following symptoms:

  • infrequent bowel movements, typically less than three a week
  • difficult time passing stools
  • hard or small stools
  • abdominal bloating or discomfort

This potentially embarrassing condition can be caused directly by MS itself or indirectly from the symptoms caused by MS. Either way, it’s important you bring it up to your doctor. Unresolved constipation can actually worsen bladder and other MS symptoms.

Here are seven home remedies that can help resolve, or even prevent, constipation.

1. Eat more fiber

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a high-fiber diet can help resolve constipation. It can also reduce your risk for a number of other conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. Sammarco suggests women shoot for at least 25 grams of fiber each day and men aim for 38 grams a day.

The AHA recommends getting fiber from food as opposed to supplements whenever possible. Whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats, and brown rice are a great place to start. Other good sources of fiber include:

  • fresh fruit, such as apples, raspberries, and bananas
  • legumes, such as split peas, lentils, and beans
  • nuts, such as walnuts and almonds
  • vegetables, such as artichokes and broccoli

2. Try bulking agents

Maybe you’re not a fan of vegetables or you feel like you don’t have the time to cook whole grains. If that’s the case, keep trying new foods until you find the high-fiber diet that works for you. In the meantime, bulking agents can also help.

Bulking agents, also known as fiber supplements, can increase your volume of stool. That can make it easier to pass the stool. They include:

  • psyllium (Metamucil)
  • polycarbophil (FiberCon)
  • psyllium and senna (Perdiem)
  • wheat dextrin (Benefiber)
  • methylcellulose (Citrucel)

What’s the best fiber supplement? »

To ensure the desired effect, make sure you read the directions for whatever bulking agent you try. You will often be instructed to take the supplement with at least one glass of water or other clear liquid.

It’s often best to take these supplements at night for a more regular morning bowel routine. Make sure to continue drinking plenty of fluid throughout the day.

3. Drink more water

One of the most helpful ways to ease constipation is to simply drink more fluids, especially water. The Mayo Clinic recommends women drink nine cups of fluid daily and men drink 13 cups. This is, of course, just a general estimate. If you’re nowhere near that amount, that could be contributing to your constipation.

Sammarco says drinking warm water, especially in the morning, can also help manage constipation.

4. Increase your exercise

Regular exercise can help reduce constipation or even prevent it from happening in the first place. Exercise stimulates the abdominal muscles that in turn may stimulate the movements in the colon. One study showed that daily abdominal massage improved the symptoms of constipation. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society says that moving more can improve other MS symptoms and boost your mood.

Fatigue and other factors can make it difficult to exercise. If this is the case for you, start with low-impact exercises such as brisk walking or water aerobics. Every kind of activity counts.

5. Use a stool softener

If you’re still looking for more options to treat your constipation, stool softeners can be beneficial. They can decrease the pain and strain of bowel movements, and help alleviate some discomfort.

Docusate (Colace) and MiraLAX (polyethylene glycol 3350) are two available options that do not require a prescription. Both work by increasing the fluid or fat in the stool and making it softer and easier to pass.

6. Lean on laxatives

Laxatives aren’t a long-term solution, but may provide temporary relief. Using them regularly can actually change the tone and feeling in the large intestine, says Sammarco. This can lead to dependency, meaning you start to need a laxative for every bowel movement.

Laxatives can be used to speed stool along without irritating your intestines. Some options include bisacodyl (Correctol) and sennosides (Ex-Lax, Senokot).

Talk with your doctor first if you think laxatives might benefit you.

7. Get regular in your routine

Getting into a routine can also help relieve bowel discomforts, says Sammarco. Visit the bathroom 20 to 30 minutes after eating, for example, to take advantage of your body’s natural gastrocolic reflex. This reflex triggers your bowel to contract and can make it easier to pass a stool.

When to see a doctor

If constipation is new for you, it’s time to tell your doctor. Only a medical professional can tell you if there’s something else going on.

Blood in your stool, unexplained weight loss, or severe pain with bowel movements are other symptoms that warrant a call to your doctor today.

“We can blame MS for a lot, but not for everything. So it is important to review new symptoms with your healthcare provider,” says Sammarco.