10 Remedies for Constipation After Surgery
Constipation means having fewer bowel movements than you typically have.
The signs and symptoms of constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), include:
- fewer than three bowel movements per week
- hard, dry, or lumpy stool
- hard-to-pass stool
- pain when passing stool
- feeling that stool remains after a bowel movement
Many people get constipated from time to time, and surgery can increase the chance of it happening. Constipation after surgery can have a serious effect on healing, comfort, morale, and quality of life. For this reason, it is good to know the underlying cause, how to prevent it, and what to do about it.
You can talk with your doctor about bowel preparation before surgery to reduce the chance of constipation.
Constipation after surgery can be due to the surgery itself and anything that slows the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or reduces moisture in it. These factors include:
- Pain medications containing opioids: These drugs slow digestion and the contractions necessary to move stool through the GI tract. They also slow digestion and delay the transfer of digested food out of the stomach and into the intestines. Read more about opioid-induced constipation (OIC) here.
- Anesthesia: Surgery often involves general anesthesia, which eliminates the ability to sense pain but also slows down the body. Stool loses fluid through the intestine, so the longer the stool is in the intestine, the dryer and harder it is.
- Other medications: Other medications that can cause constipation include:
- sleep medicines
- diuretics (“water pills”)
- Lack of movement: You are encouraged to get moving soon after surgery, but your overall activity will slow down until your incision heals and your surgeon gives you the OK to increase your activity level.
- Change in bowel movement habits: Constipation can also come about from not using the bathroom as much as you usually do. This can happen for a variety of reasons, one of which is a relative lack of privacy if your surgery involves a hospital stay or time spent at a skilled nursing facility.
- Diet and fluids: What you eat and drink has a significant effect on stool consistency. You need to drink water and other fluids and eat a diet that has some fiber in it to produce stool that is easy to pass. If you tend to get constipated even with adequate fluid and fiber, talk with your doctor about this before surgery. Then, you can make some adjustments to your diet as necessary.
There are many things you can do for constipation relief as you recover in the hospital or at home. Here is a look at 10 of them.
1. Drink water
Constipation occurs when your stool hardens due to a lack of moisture or intestinal movement. Drinking a lot of fluids can help add moisture to stool and make it easier to pass. Fluids also help you avoid dehydration, which can also happen after surgery.
Recommendations for daily fluid intakes vary by age, sex, and pregnancy status. Ask your doctor for specific guidance. Keep in mind that your daily fluid intake includes fluid from the foods you consume, including soups, vegetables, fruits, and shakes.
2. Take a stool-softening medication
If you are already prone to constipation or are concerned about constipation after your surgery, talk with your doctor or surgeon about when you can start taking stool-softening medication. There are many stool softeners available over the counter that do not require a prescription.
3. Try bowel training
Bowel training is a strategy to schedule bathroom breaks at similar times throughout the day to help you become more regular. This is something you can try well in advance of surgery.
According to the NIDDK, eating helps your GI tract move stool, so you could schedule your bowel movement about 30 minutes after breakfast or any other meal. Try to have a bowel movement whenever you feel the urge to poop, and take your time.
4. Drink coffee, tea, or other caffeinated drinks
Excess caffeine can increase constipation because it is dehydrating, but it can also help relieve constipation by stimulating your bowel to contract. If you are not a regular coffee drinker, having a small amount of some kind of caffeinated beverage — such as tea or Coca-Cola — the morning after surgery may help relieve your constipation.
If you drink decaffeinated coffee or would like to avoid caffeine altogether, you may still be in luck. A 2019 study in rats suggested that both regular and decaf coffee stimulated rat bowel muscles to contract. The reason for this is not known, but it may have to do with the effect of coffee on the growth of bacteria in fecal matter.
One of the top remedies for constipation after surgery is to get moving as soon as possible. If your body is moving, this makes it easier for your intestinal tract to also start moving.
Not everybody will be able to walk after surgery, depending on the procedure and other health conditions. However, if your doctor recommends it and you are able to do so, start walking — whether it is in the halls at the hospital, inside your home, or down the street.
6. Eat high fiber foods
Eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can add bulk to your stool, which makes it easier for your body to pass it. Here are some foods to include:
- high fiber fruits, including:
- berries (especially blackberries and raspberries)
- high fiber vegetables, including:
- leafy greens
- Brussels sprouts
- legumes, including:
- black beans and kidney beans
- whole grains, including:
- shredded wheat
- bran muffins
- pasta (labeled as whole grain)
If you tend to be constipated, consider working with a dietitian before surgery to help you plan the right amount of fiber for you. It is better to introduce fiber to your diet slowly so that your body gets used to it. You may want to ask your surgeon for a referral to a registered dietitian.
Note: Avoid bulk fiber supplements after surgery, as these can make constipation worse.
7. Try sugar-free gummy bears
There are anecdotal reports that sugar-free gummy bears may be an easy way to relieve postsurgery constipation in children — especially those who are selective about food or medications but love sweets.
This type of candy is made with sugar alcohols, including sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, and many others. These substances sweeten the candy but have half the amount of calories and do not cause cavities. They also do not contain alcohol. They are naturally occurring sweeteners from plants.
The connection between sugar-free gummy bears and constipation is based on the fact that the body does not readily absorb sugar alcohols. Instead, sugar-free gummy bears can cause diarrhea and act as laxatives.
The diarrhea effect does not work with regular gummy bears, only the sugar-free variety. A word of caution: Do not consume too many sugar-free gummy bears, as sugar alcohols can cause bloating and cramping as well as diarrhea. There is no scientific study on how many to consume, which will depend on the person’s metabolism, weight, diet, and more.
Always discuss the use of any alternative treatment with your doctor or pediatrician.
8. Take less pain medication
A common reason for constipation after surgery is taking medication that slows down your gut activity. Postsurgery prescription pain medications, which often include opioids, have this effect. If you can taper your opioid medication or replace it with over-the-counter pills, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), this can help your GI tract get back to normal more quickly.
Your doctor can discuss your options and alternatives with you. Some experts recommend starting laxatives at the same time as the opioid prescription to prevent OIC.
9. Take bowel stimulant laxatives
If the strategies above do not relieve your constipation, you may need to take a stimulant laxative. This is especially warranted if you take a prescription pain medication containing opioids.
Laxatives stimulate your intestinal muscles to contract, which helps move your stool. Like stool softeners, laxatives are also available without a prescription. Examples include bisacodyl (Dulcolax, Correctol) and senna (Senokot). There are also combination products, such as Colace, which contains docusate sodium (stool softener) and senna.
If you use a stimulant laxative and still have not had a bowel movement after 2 days, call your primary care physician. Stimulant laxatives are for short-term use and should not be used for longer than 1 week.
10. Change your diet before surgery
To prevent constipation after surgery, consider changing your diet several days or weeks before your surgery. If you do not already eat a fiber-rich and fluid-filled diet, increase the amount of whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, and fluids you consume.
These items will help soften your stool and increase the likelihood that it will stay soft after your surgery, which helps keep constipation at bay. This remedy may not work for everyone, as you may have other dietary restrictions in place. Check with your doctor about trying this dietary remedy before your procedure.
Constipation may be expected after surgery, but it is also important to know when to contact a doctor. If there is no improvement in your symptoms with self-care at home or within 2 days of taking a stimulant laxative, contact your doctor. Depending on your symptoms, they may prescribe a medication to increase fluid in your digestive tract and possibly other medications.
You should also contact your doctor promptly for the following symptoms:
- abdominal pain that does not go away
- black or tar-like, sticky stool, which is a sign of blood in the stool
- rectal bleeding
- loose or watery stool
- low back pain
Constipation is common after surgery. There are several reasons for this, including anesthesia, medication use, and a lack of movement.
There are treatment options and home remedies available for constipation after surgery. These include eating more fiber, drinking more water, and working with your doctor to alter your medications.
Contact a doctor if you experience persistent constipation after surgery. They can diagnose the underlying cause and suggest an appropriate treatment option.