Incomplete bowel movement (Tenesmus): Causes, symptoms, treatment, and home remedies

Tenesmus or rectal tenesmus, as it is often called, is associated with incomplete bowel movements. Tenesmus can be painful and leave a sufferer confused about what is happening to their body. Here, we look at what causes tenesmus, tenesmus symptoms, and how to address the condition.

A tenesmus definition is simply a feeling of not being able to empty the large bowel, even if there is nothing left to expel. When someone is diagnosed with this condition, it is common to be confused and ask, what is tenesmus? Most people are familiar with the term diarrhea or constipation, but tenesmus isn’t a widely discussed phenomenon.

What causes incomplete bowel movements?


If you have already concluded that tenesmus is related to some sort of colon or rectum malfunction, you are correct, but let’s look at what specifically causes an incomplete bowel movement.

Some tenesmus causes are linked to disorders that involve the bowel. The urge to defecate has been associated with the following:


This condition can be associated with either a constant or intermittent urge to have a bowel movement. In most cases, this feeling is temporary.


Inflammation of the veins in the rectum and anus is linked to both constipation and diarrhea. Some experts say that sitting on the toilet for long periods of time can contribute to incomplete bowel movement and hemorrhoids.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

This is believed to be the most common cause of a constant urge to have a bowel movement. IBD means that a person has chronic inflammation in the walls of their bowel. The subtypes of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

IBS can be characterized by periods of diarrhea and/or constipation. While there don’t seem to be any structural abnormalities with IBS, the bowel doesn’t function exactly as it should.

Infectious colitis

This is an infection that is due to bacteria, parasites, or viruses.

Colon polyps

Small clumps of cells can form on the lining of the colon. Most are harmless, but some colon polyps can develop into colon cancer.

Fecal impaction

This refers to a solid mass of feces that won’t move through the rectum. The most common cause is chronic constipation.

Rectal prolapse

A condition that can occur when the rectum slides out of place and sticks out of the anus. It is something that has been known to happen when a person strains too much to have a bowel movement.


This is a severe type of constipation. In obstipation cases, people can’t pass stool or gas.

There may be other underlying reasons for rectal tenesmus, but the list above covers most of the common causes.

Other symptoms that may accompany an incomplete bowel movement

There are other symptoms of tenesmus aside from a constant urge to defecate. Cramping and a shooting pain around the anus can accompany this sensation.

Here are a few other tenesmus symptoms:

If you experience the feeling of being unable to completely empty the large bowel of stool, along with the symptoms above, you should not treat it on your own. It is important to determine the cause of tenesmus first. In most cases, doctors will begin treatment by addressing the cause first.

How to diagnose and treat tenesmus

A tenesmus diagnosis can only be made following a complete medical assessment, which includes a review of the person’s medical and family histories as well as a discussion about symptoms and lifestyle habits. A doctor will likely ask questions about the following:

  • Duration, frequency, severity, and onset of symptoms
  • Typical bowel habits
  • Diet and lifestyle
  • Other health conditions

The doctor will also examine the patient’s abdomen and rectal area. Some of the tests outlined below may be carried out too.

  • Blood tests
  • Stool culture
  • X-ray plain film or CT scan of abdomen and pelvic area
  • Colonoscopy to examine the colon
  • Sigmoidoscopy to examine the last section of the colon
  • Screening for STDs

There is not just one incomplete bowel movement cure for all cases. Treatment for tenesmus depends on both the underlying cause and the severity of the individual’s condition. Some people require a combination of treatments to address the symptoms.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the most common cause of tenesmus, is treated with various medications, many of which are aimed at stopping inflammation. For instance, anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce inflammation. There are also drugs that can lower the immune system and antibiotics that can kill bacteria in the intestines to treat IBD and tenesmus. Corticosteroid therapy is sometimes used for IBD flare-ups as well.

For those who are suffering from tenesmus associated with constipation, laxatives can be prescribed but should not be taken long-term since the bowel can become dependent on them. In severe cases where people experience stool impaction, waste may have to be manually removed by a doctor or with a flush system. On the other hand, if infectious diarrhea is the cause, treatment might include antibiotics or anti-parasites to kill the infection. It is important to remember that certain foods and medications can lead to either diarrhea or constipation, so the cure for some people is simply a change in eating habits or adjusting their medication.

Tenesmus treatment can also involve surgical procedures. This is considered a last resort but can be used to widen a narrow bowel or remove blockages. Additionally, pain relief may be suggested in the form of either over-the-counter pain medications or prescription drugs.

Home remedies for incomplete bowel movements

Tenesmus can be treated with home remedies. The best home treatment is a healthy diet. The following list includes some diet and other lifestyle tips for helping fight tenesmus.

  • Avoid junk food: Fast food, processed foods, alcohol, and refined flour should be eliminated from the diet.
  • Consume fiber: Fiber-rich foods such as beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and seeds are suggested. About 25 grams a day is good for normal bowel function, but keep in mind that those with irritable bowel disease can find that their symptoms get worse with high amounts of fiber in the diet.
  • Stay hydrated: Liquids cleanse the colon and get rid of toxins, which help stools pass. Water, coconut water, and some fruit juices are good options.
  • Try Bishop’s weed and sugar candy: Consuming these two or three times a day with water can be effective in treating tenesmus, but seek medical advice before trying it.
  • Exercise daily: Getting exercise can stimulate the digestive process and prevent problems, such as constipation.
  • Manage stress: Tenesmus symptoms can flare-up when you are stressed out, especially if the underlying cause is IBD. Find ways to manage stress such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation.


Tenesmus is an uncomfortable and frustrating condition. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet and regular exercise can often stave off a lot of the underlying conditions that lead to rectal tenesmus. Should you find yourself in a position where you feel the constant urge to defecate, don’t strain.

Research suggests that straining can lead to soft tissues problems, hemorrhoids, prolapsed anus, or vaginal varicose veins. There have even been cases of people fainting or having heart attacks when straining on the toilet.

Related: What causes overactive bowel? Symptoms, tests, and treatment


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Chronic idiopathic constipation: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

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