Post-Surgical Constipation: 7 Ways to Prevent Constipation After Surgery & Why It Happens in the First Place by Dr. Constance Chen

Family Health
3 years ago

Post-Surgical Constipation: 7 Ways to Prevent Constipation After Surgery & Why It Happens in the First Place

When patients think about healing after surgery, many worry about pain and sometimes nausea. For some patients, however, there is an additional issue that they may be embarrassed to bring up: constipation. Not everyone suffers from constipation after surgery, but general anesthesia and postoperative narcotics slow down the gastrointestinal (GI) system. Lack of movement in the intestines can cause nausea, and it can also cause constipation. Not only is constipation uncomfortable, leading to a feeling of generalized abdominal pains and bloating, but for some people it can even make them feel dizzy.

For the overwhelming majority of people, post-operative constipation resolves on its own after a few days, but it is uncomfortable and distressing for the patient who is trying to direct all her energies to healing. For most people, minimizing narcotics will reduce the likelihood of postoperative nausea and constipation. For some people, however, more drastic measures may be necessary.

Causes of Constipation After Surgery

Several factors are responsible for constipation after surgery:

  • Anesthesia, which paralyzes the muscles and prevents food from moving along the intestinal tract.
  • Opioids, often given during and after surgery to control pain, also slow the movement of food and may increase the amount of water absorbed from food, making the stool drier and harder.
  • Not eating before and after surgery exacerbates the problem since without food going in, there can be no stool coming out. Similarly, if the surgeon has recommended pre-operative bowel preparation that completely cleans out the colon, there's no digestive activity until the intake of food and water gets things moving again.
  • The lack of physical activity following surgery contributes further to the slowdown of the digestive system.

Ways to Prevent Constipation After Surgery

Here's some suggestions for preventing post-surgical constipation or minimizing its effects:

  • Ask your surgeon if it's possible to avoid or reduce the use of opioids for pain control, substituting acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), gabapentin and other non-opioid medications. 
  • Follow your doctor's instructions about what and when to eat but when possible, eat a high-fiber diet before and after surgery, emphasizing whole grainsfruits and vegetablesbeans, nuts and seeds. 
  • Snacking or eating small, frequent means may promote digestive activity. 
  • Avoid foods that promote constipation like dairy products, processed foods, bananas and refined grains such as white bread, white rice and white pasta.
  • Drink lots of fluids. It's essential to be well hydrated to promote bowel movements that aren't dry and hard. 
  • Start moving around as soon as your doctor gives you the OK, even moving arms and legs as much as possible while still in bed. 
  • With your doctor's approval, take a stool softener, usually one that includes docusate sodium, to draw water from the intestines and moisten the stool, making it easier to pass. Do not take or use over-the-counter laxatives, probiotics, enemas or suppositories without discussing them first with your doctor.

There's no timetable or formula for determining when your bowel habits have returned to normal. Normal is different for everyone, but most people know when they feel better. If you have a history of constipation, it’s a good idea to bring it up with your doctor to discuss strategies to minimize the effects. That way, you can be proactive about taking the necessary steps to make your recovery from surgery as comfortable as possible.

The information on is for informational and entertainment purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. The information provided through this site should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, and is not a substitute for professional care. Always consult your personal healthcare provider.

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Elisa Schmitz
Love it when you share information that people may be embarrassed to ask about. Thank you, Dr. Constance Chen !

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