What Is Opioid-Induced Constipation?

Valerie Goldberg

Opioids are a type of prescription medication given to patients to treat severe pain. Common opioid drugs include morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone. This class of medication works with the body's nervous system to send fewer pain signals to a person's brain. Opioid pain medications can be prescribed for short-term or chronic pain. While this type of medication provides major pain relief to many patients, one drawback to a person using narcotics is opioid-induced constipation.

Opiods may make it difficult to pass regular bowel movements.
Opiods may make it difficult to pass regular bowel movements.

One very common side effect of narcotic medication is opioid-induced constipation. Anyone can suffer from constipation — hard-to-pass or irregular bowel movements — but people who use opioids are at a higher risk. Opioids have a strong impact on the digestive system, which can result in less frequent bowel movements even in patients who had regular bowel movements before beginning to take opioid medications.

Laxatives can help relieve opioid-induced constipation.
Laxatives can help relieve opioid-induced constipation.

A patient who takes opioid medications and notices a change in his bowel movement pattern may be suffering from opioid-induced constipation. One sign of this is the need to strain or push hard during a bowel movement. People suffering from opioid-induced constipation also may feel bloated and tired. Patients also might notice that their stools are dryer or harder than before they began using opioids.

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It is important for patients to seek relief from opioid-induced constipation. A person may choose to eat a high-fiber diet to battle constipation. Foods high in fiber include but are not limited to apples, oat bran, broccoli, pears and beans. It also is important for patients to perform some type of exercise on a regular basis, as long as it is safe for them to do so based on their medical condition. People who use opioid medications also should drink plenty of water to fight constipation.

If a patient cannot control opioid-induced constipation on his own, then he should speak to a doctor, who can recommend the best methods for managing constipation. One item a doctor may suggest is an over-the-counter stool softener. Stool softeners are oral pills that are taken with water and can cause a person to have smoother bowel movements.

Laxatives can be another effective treatment for chronic constipation. When a person uses laxatives, his intestines are stimulated, prompting a bowel movement. If a patient struggles to find relief from oral options for constipation management, then a doctor may recommend an enema or suppository applied directly through the rectum.

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