Hard Stool Causes and Treatments: What to Do and When to See a Doctor

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Hard stools are a result of your colon absorbing too much water. That can happen when food passes too slowly through your digestive system. This results in hard, dry stools that are difficult for you to pass. Hard stool is often a symptom of constipation, which is a condition where you pass less than three bowel movements per week. 

Some common causes of hard stool that lead to constipation include:   

  • Medication you are taking
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Pregnancy
  • Aging
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Taking too many laxatives
  • Intestinal issues
  • Lack of fiber in your diet
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome  

Constipation symptoms vary depending upon the cause of the problem. You may experience one or more of the following constipation side effects due to hard stool:

  • Painful bowel movements
  • Abdominal pain
  • Feelings of bloating and discomfort
  • Sluggishness

You should see a doctor if you suspect that you are dealing with dry stool. How they go about diagnosing your condition depends on the severity of the dry stools and other symptoms that may be present. 

Diagnosing Hard Stool

A doctor may perform one or more of the following when trying to diagnose the reason why you are dealing with hard stool. There could be an underlying medical condition other than constipation of which you may not be aware.   

  • Review your medical history
  • Ask questions like how long you’ve dealt with hard stools and the frequency of your bowel movements
  • Give you a physical that includes a digital rectum examination (DRE)
  • Perform an abdominal x-ray
  • Conduct a lower GI (gastrointestinal) series, also called a barium enema
  • Perform a colonoscopy to get a view of the entire length of your intestine
  • Perform a sigmoidoscopy, where they insert a short, lighted, flexible tube through the rectum to obtain an inner view of the large intestine
  • Conduct a colorectal transit study, where you swallow a capsule that leaves markers that doctors track over three to seven days while you follow a fiber-free diet
  • Conduct anorectal function tests to see if you have constipation caused by abnormal anus or rectal functions  

Other complications can develop if you have constipation. Some of the issues you can end up with due to your hard stools include:

  • Hemorrhoids
  • Tears in the skin of the anus (anal fissures) because of excessive stretching of the muscles in that area
  • Rectal bleeding due to anal tears
  • Rectal prolapse
  • Fecal impaction

You can also end up with hard stools because of other problems within your rectum and colon. There may be neurological issues that affect the way muscles contract in the colon and rectum, causing your stool to pass more slowly. Those problems can be caused by:  

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Injury to the spinal cord
  • Stroke
  • Autonomic neuropathy

Remedies and Treatments for Hard Stool

Your doctor may recommend some lifestyle changes as part of your hard stool treatment. The intent is usually to increase the speed of your bowel movements. 

Increasing Fiber Intake

You may be asked to make diet changes that include more fruits and vegetables during your meals. Other recommendations for adding fiber often include eating whole-grain cereals and bread. Your doctor may have specific advice about the amount of fiber you should try to consume each day. 

Starting an Exercise Routine

Physical activity can help increase muscle activity in your intestines. You may wish to consult with your doctor on how many days per week you should try to exercise. Make sure that the program does not have any adverse impacts on your overall health. 

Take Supplements

Your physician may advise you to start taking laxatives to soften your hard stool and ease your bowel movements. There are a variety of different laxatives on the market that may work depending on your circumstances, including: 

  • Fiber supplements to bulk up your stool
  • Stimulants that help your intestine contract
  • Osmotics that increase the fluid secretions in your bowels to help stimulate bowel movements
  • Lubricants that ease the passage of stool through your colon
  • Stool softeners that draw water into hard stools from your intestine
  • Enemas and suppositories to soften stools and stimulate a bowel movement

When to See a Doctor

You may wish to contact your primary health care provider if your hard stools cause you to experience symptoms like abdominal pain or other severe discomforts. If your hard stools are the result of constipation, you could end up with more serious complications without timely treatment.