What is occasional constipation?

When your digestive system isn’t functioning properly — causing difficult or infrequent bowel movements — you might be constipated. What that means for you depends on your body, age, bowel movement patterns, lifestyle, and many other factors.

How to know if you’re constipated

Occasional constipation is characterized by difficult or infrequent bowel movements. Generally speaking, passing fewer than three stools per week, not going to the bathroom as often as usual, or straining because your stool is too dry and hard to pass may mean you’re experiencing constipation. But each body is unique — only you know what is normal for you.

If you are experiencing frequent constipation episodes, or have noticed a sudden change in your bowel habits, talk to a healthcare professional.

How your digestive system works

Your digestive system is a complex group of organs that work together to transform food into energy and nutrients. It breaks nutrients down into parts small enough for your body to absorb and use for energy, growth, and cell repair. Your large intestine absorbs water, and the waste products of digestion become stool. 

The digestive process
  • Nerves and hormones help control digestion, which starts in your mouth when you chew your food. Your saliva moistens food to help it move easily through your esophagus, and contains an enzyme that begins to break down starches in your food.
  • Once you swallow your food, it makes its way down to your stomach. With the help of the digestive juices, the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are broken down into simple nutrients. They then pass through the small intestine, which absorbs water and the digested nutrients into the bloodstream. The waste products of the digestive process move into the large intestine.
  • The last stage of digestion takes place in the large intestine (also called the colon). Bacteria in your large intestine help break down remaining nutrients and make vitamin K (a nutrient that your body needs to stay healthy). Water is being continuously absorbed through the large intestine. Waste products of digestion, including parts of food that are still too large, become stool.

When the colon’s muscle contractions are too slow, the stool doesn’t move through the colon quickly enough, resulting in too much water being absorbed. This can occur when the waste is too dry to trigger the ejection reflex, or contractions of the colon are too weak to drive the stool out of your body. 

What are the different types of constipation?

Primary constipation 
The most common type of constipation — primary constipation — is characterized by difficult, infrequent, or incomplete emptying of the bowel without any clear cause or identified underlying illness. 

Secondary constipation 
This type of constipation is associated with factors impacting your body’s regularity. Numerous common medical conditions may affect the muscles or nerves used for normal bowel movements and can be the cause of constipation. Examples include diabetes, Parkinson's disease, low thyroid hormone levels, depression, lack of potassium, too much calcium, lack of magnesium, and medications.

Acute versus chronic constipation 
It’s important to distinguish between acute (days to weeks) or chronic (months to years) constipation because this information can help your physicians identify potential causes.

Potential complications of constipation

Constipation can cause complications that can interfere with your quality of life. They may include:

  • Swollen veins in your anus (hemorrhoids). Straining to have a bowel movement may cause swelling in the veins in and around your anus.
  • Torn skin in your anus (anal fissure). A large or hard stool can cause tiny tears in the anus.
  • Stool that can’t be expelled (fecal impaction). Constipation may cause an accumulation of hardened stool that gets stuck in your intestines. This is a serious condition that requires urgent care from a doctor.
  • Intestine that protrudes from the anus (rectal prolapse). Straining to have a bowel movement can cause a small amount of the rectum to stretch and protrude from the anus.

Stay informed

Occasional constipation is a common condition with a wide range of possible causes. We know how unpredictable and frustrating constipation can be, so we are here to help you identify the possible causes and learn how to address them.