Drug Use and Constipation: The Facts to Know
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Drug Use and Constipation The Facts to Know

Everyone poops. But what happens when you don’t?

Experts say that we all have different bowel habits. Some of us go several times per day, and others just go once. But we can all agree that you shouldn’t wait days or even weeks between a purposeful bathroom trip.

But that’s just what drugs can do.

Drug-induced constipation is serious, and it can lead to icky health problems that stick with you for the rest of your life.

Read on to find out how it happens, what causes it, and how you can deal with it.

What Exactly Is Constipation?

Your gut is an efficient machine that extracts fluids and nutrients from everything you eat and drink. Solids your body doesn’t need should slide out naturally. When something interferes with that system, and your body hangs onto things it should expel, you’re dealing with constipation. It’s relatively common, but it can cause damage.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases says people with constipation have one (or more) of these four symptoms:

  • Low frequency: You have fewer than three productive bathroom trips per week.
  • Unusual consistency: The stools you can pass are lumpy, dry, or hard.
  • Pain or straining: Your bathroom trips are characterized by effort and discomfort.
  • Frequent trips: You may feel like you still have stool to pass, even if you see something in the toilet bowl.

Pooping should be a natural, effortless process. But when you’re constipated, you feel like you must help your body along. That means you might push, press, and strain as you sit on the toilet. All of that work can harm your body.

Mayo Clinic says people with long-lasting constipation can:

  • Damage veins. The blood vessels in and around your anus can fill with blood and grow distorted. These hemorrhoids can bleed or cause pain.
  • Rip tissue. If your stools are both large and hard, they can tear your anus.
  • Stretch intestines. Push hard enough, and you might expel some of your intestines out of your anus.
  • Block progression. Stool that stays in your intestines grows harder, bigger, and dryer. In time, it might be impossible for you to clear the pathway.

People with chronic constipation talk about feeling bloated, sore, and uncomfortable. They may bleed while sitting on the toilet, and they may leak when they’re not.

These aren’t symptoms anyone likes to talk about. Our bathroom habits are typically private. Some people with a drug habit keep their problems hidden for months because they’re just not sure how to describe what’s happening to them.

opioid epidemic

One Drug Causes Most Constipation Cases

All kinds of things can cause constipation. If you’re under intense stress, for example, your bowel can lock up and stop functioning. But for people with an addiction issue, there’s one substance that can and often does contribute to constipation. That drug is in the opioid class.

Opioids include:

  • Prescription painkillers. Vicodin, OxyContin, and other medications you get from the pharmacy are in this class.
  • Whether you buy it as a powder, a sticky brick, or a crystal, this drug is considered an opioid.
  • Illicit drugs. Fentanyl is an opioid, and it’s often added to other drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. If you take these drugs, you could be taking an opioid without knowing it.

Opioids cause constipation in 50 to 95 percent of people who take them, say experts writing in the journal Orthopaedic Nursing. Opioid receptors dot the intestine, and whenever you take a hit, the gut responds by relaxing.

Just as your brain feels sedated, so does your digestive system. Food moves slowly through your body, and water is pulled from waste material. The result: large, hard, dry stools that are very hard to remove.

At very high doses, opioids can suppress your subconscious nervous system. That’s the pathway your intestines use to talk with your brain. If that connection is slowed or stopped, you may lose the ability to go to the bathroom, even if you need to. Your nerves will forget to flex the intestinal walls and keep things moving.

4 Ways to Treat Constipation

You’re probably aware of the main way to remove drug-induced constipation. You might even be thinking about how to make that happen. But your doctor has a few additional treatment options to help you through a constipation crisis.

If you have drug-induced constipation, your doctor can suggest:

  • Drug cessation. Most cases of drug constipation will fade when you stop taking drugs and let your body take over natural functions.
  • Diet changes. A diet that contains up to 31 grams of fiber per day can prevent constipation, says Harvard Medical School. Load up your plate with whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Get moving. Walking and stretching can spark movement in your gut, which could ease your discomfort.
  • Use medications. Experts don’t recommend long-term use of drugs to alleviate constipation. It’s better to let your body ease symptoms naturally. But if you need extra help, your doctor can offer a short course of treatment to get things moving.

It’s easy to tell someone to stop taking drugs. It’s sometimes harder to make that happen. In a detox program, professionals can use medications to help your brain cells function normally without the presence of drugs. You can get treatment for constipation at the same time.

When you’ve achieved sobriety, your team can help you move into a treatment program, so you can preserve and protect the progress you’ve made. These programs help you understand how the drug use started, and you’ll emerge with tools that can help you to stay sober for a lifetime.

Your constipation is certainly uncomfortable. It’s also a little embarrassing. But think about it. That one symptom could be the prompt you need to enter treatment. If so, it could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.


Concerned About Constipation? (December 2013). National Institute on Aging.

Digestive Diseases: Constipation. National Institute on Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Constipation: Symptoms and Causes. (June 2019). Mayo Clinic.

What to Do When Medication Makes You Constipated. (August 2017). Harvard Medical School.

“I Can’t Poop:” Medication-Induced Constipation. (May 2018). Orthopaedic Nursing.

Opiate Addiction’s Little Secret. (June 2017). The Huffington Post.

Avoid Complications by Treating Chronic Constipation Early. (January 2019). Harvard Medical School.

Constipation: Practice Essentials. (July 2019). Medscape.

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