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What To Do About Hard Stools

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Updated March 14, 2013

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What To Do About Hard Stools
Photo: Darrell Gulin/Getty Images

Because digestion is quite a variable process, most people experience hard stools from time to time, while for others, hard stools may be more of a chronic problem. This article will cover what might be causing you to experience hard stools, and discusses what you can do about them.

What Causes Hard Stools?

To understand what causes hard stools, you must first be acquainted with how your digestive system works. Once most of the nutrients from the food we eat are absorbed by the small intestine, the small intestine then releases liquid and fiber into the large intestine, where these substances undergo the process of being formed into stool. As fecal matter makes its way through the large intestine, liquid is drawn out, forming a stool that's ready to be evacuated during a bowel movement. Liquid can be drawn out from fecal matter that's present for too long in the lower part of the large intestine, resulting in the formation of hard, dry stools.

It therefore makes sense that the most common cause of hard stools is the infrequency of bowel movements as a result of constipation. To a lesser extent, hard stools may be caused by inadequate fluid intake, as the colon is forced to draw excess water from the stool. Hard stools may also be the result of a deficiency of dietary fiber in the diet.

Can You Have Hard Stools Without Being Constipated?

Yes, it is possible. Constipation is defined as a condition in which a person has fewer than three bowel movements a week. It is possible to have a daily bowel movement and still experience hard stools.

What to Do About Hard Stools

1. Treat Constipation

If infrequent bowel movements are contributing to the experience of hard stools, it is essential to see your doctor to pinpoint what may causing you to experience chronic constipation. An accurate diagnosis is essential in developing a treatment strategy. If constipation is confirmed as the problem, you will find plenty of ideas for managing your constipation in the following article:

2. Add Fiber to Your Diet

Although research on dietary fiber and hard stools is not conclusive, there are some indications that increasing soluble fiber may be helpful. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, therefore softening the stool. Soluble fiber can be found in many fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. Psyllium and flaxseed are excellent sources of soluble fiber. Adding either of these to your diet may significantly help to soften stools:

3. Drink Water

Keep your body well-hydrated by drinking adequate amounts of water throughout the day. This will help to ensure that your body is not drawing excessive amounts of water from your stools.

4. Pay Attention to Urges

Many people have a tendency to try to put off bowel movements, preferring to wait until they are in the comfort of their own home, or until there is a more convenient time. Hard stools are a sign that the stool is spending too much time in the colon. It is essential that you tune in to your body's needs and make your way to a bathroom when your body is signalling that it is ready for an evacuation. Strategies for bowel retraining may also be helpful:

5. When Necessary, Use a Stool Softener

Stool softeners are over-the-counter products that serve to soften the stool and help to initiate a bowel movement. Stool softeners reduce the amount of fluid that the intestines absorb, leaving more water in the stool. Stool softeners differ from suppositories, which are a form of stimulant laxative; stool softeners are generally considered a safer alternative. Always check with a physician before taking any over-the-counter product.

Hard Stools and IBS

Scant research has been done on the specific symptom of hard stools in IBS. One small study did yield a very interesting finding: while looking at the experience of postprandial pain, the researchers found no difference in the frequency of bowel movements in patients who characterized themselves as either IBS-C or IBS-D. Instead, patients made this distinction based on whether their stools were hard or loose. Although this is only one small study, it does suggest that people who have IBS-C should be careful as to their assessment of what their bowel dysfunction is. In other words, your management strategies would differ if your problem is infrequent stools versus having regular movements with hard stools. In the first case, you would want to ensure that you are doing all that you can to stimulate bowel motility, i.e. by using strategies for chronic constipation (see link above). If you're having daily movements, but the problem is hard stools, you may be served simply by following the above suggestions for softening stool.

Sources:

"Constipation" National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) Accessed February 13, 2013.

Ragnarsson, G. & Bodemar, G. "Pain is temporally related to eating but not to defaecation in the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Patients' description of diarrhoea, constipation and symptom variation during a prospective 6-week study " European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology 1998 10:415-422.

Suares, N. & Ford, A. "Systematic Review: The Effects of Fibre in the Management of Chronic Idiopathic Constipation" Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics 2011 33:895–901.

Yang, J. et.al. "Effect of dietary fiber on constipation: A meta analysis" World Journal of Gastroenterology 2012 18:7378-7383.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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