Bowels Backed Up (Not Moving) Causes, Foods and Exercises

Movement through the bowels is constantly occurring to some degree. It ensures that food, fluids and feces move along the bowels at varying speeds where it can be processed and/or expelled. This movement is made possible by the coordinated contraction and relaxation of the small muscles in the bowel walls. It is referred to as peristalsis. However, when there is a problem with movement through the bowels then the bowel contents may become backed up. This can lead to complications such as abnormal stretching of the bowel walls.

Causes of Backed Up Bowels

The causes of backed up bowels are largely the conditions that cause intestinal obstruction. This may include dietary or lifestyle factors, abnormal growths, foreign bodies, narrowing of the bowels and problems with muscles and nerves of the intestines. Always consult with a medical professional to confirm an obstruction and to identify the most likely cause(s).

Read more on blocked bowel.


Constipation is a symptom present in many conditions. It is often related to dietary and lifestyle habits and sometimes may occur for unknown reasons. Without stool being passed out regularly, the colonic contents may be backed up. Severe constipation can lead to complications like fecal impaction which further hampers the movement of the bowel contents.

Some of the known causes of constipation includes:

  • Low dietary fiber
  • Low water intake
  • Inadequate food consumption
  • Low physical activity
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Nerve damage due to diseases like diabetes
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Chronic conditions like hypothyroidism
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Fecal Impaction

Fecal impaction is where stool becomes a compacted hard mass in the colon and rectum. This is mainly due to constipation. The prolonged duration that stool stays in the bowels causes it to become dry and hard. Eventually this impacted stool cannot be passed out of the bowels. It further causes the liquid and semi-solid stool higher up the colon to become backed up. In severe cases fecal impaction can cause tears in the colon wall.


Narrowing of the intestines, apart from tumors, may occur for several reasons and can cause the bowel contents to become backed up. Scar tissue may form within the bowel wall with inflammatory diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Sometimes the fibrous tissue may form around around the intestines as may occur wih adhesions that tends to follow abdominal surgery in some people.

Inflammation of the bowel wall results in swelling and this in turn causes narrowing. Inflammation may occur for various reasons such as infections, autoimmune diseases and allergies. The bowels may also become entrapped within bulges in the abdominal wall (strangulated hernia), twisted (volvulus) or telescope within itself (intussesception) which can cause a narrowing in the intestines.


Both benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) tumors of the bowels can also cause the intestinal contents to become backed up. These tumors are uncommon in the small intestine. Colorectal cancer is one of the common causes of intestinal obstruction in adults.

Polyps in the large intestine are usually benign (non-cancerous) although some may be precancerous. These growths protrude from the inner lining of the colon. Most of the time polyps do not pose a problem unless there are multiple large polyps which obstructs the colon lumen.


Muscles and the nerves that control these muscles ensure that intestinal contents are pushed through the bowels. If these nerves and/or muscles malfunction then contents within the affected part of the bowel may be stuck. As a result this can prevent the contents of the bowel moving further and resulting in a backing up of food and feces within the small or large intestines. This is known as a pseudo-obstruction.

It may arise with one or more of the following conditions/factors:

  • Conditions like Parkinson’s disease
  • Surgery to the abdomen and/or pelvis.
  • Infections
  • Certain drugs

Foreign Bodies

Foreign bodies are not a common cause of bowel obstruction. These foreign bodies may enter through the anus, usually as a purposeful act. Less often, foreign bodies may be ingested and then pass through the esophagus and stomach to the bowels where it may cause an obstruction.

Foods for Backed Up Bowels

Dietary factors play an important role in preventing and managing constipation. Ultimately these dietary measures ensure that bowel contents move through the intestines with ease and that a regular bowel habit is maintained. This prevents complications like fecal impaction but may not be as helpful for intestinal obstructions caused by other factors, like tumors. These measures include:

  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains to ensure sufficient fiber intake on a daily basis. It should make up at least half of every meal.
  • Avoid foods and beverages that may constipate, including alcoholic and caffeinated drinks that can dehydrate the body and processed carbohydrates that are low in fiber.
  • Drink sufficient water throughout the day, both with meals and between meals. Water provides bulk when absorbed by fiber and helps to keep stool soft.

Do not immediately use OTC medication like laxatives to stimulate bowel movements. It may not always be effective in and can sometimes lead to complications if taken for long periods of time.

Exercises for Backed Up Bowels

Exercise can be useful as it helps stimulate movement through the bowels. However, an exercise program should only be commenced after approval from a medical professional. As is the case with foods, exercise may not be as effective for some of the causes of backed up bowels, such as narrowing and pseudo-obstruction.

Read more on exercise for bowel movements.

  • Maintain regular physical activity in everyday chores and do between 120 to 150 minutes of exercises at least 5 times in a week.
  • Walking, jogging, swimming and most other aerobic exercises are helpful for preventing constipation and stimulating movement through the intestines.
  • Abdominal exercises may help to stimulate bowel movements by increasing pressure within the abdomen but should only be done in moderation if it is safe to do.
  • Squatting may be helpful as this position is ideal for passing stool. Even if it cannot be done during a bowel movement, squatting may help to stimulate bowel movements within a short period of time.

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