Can Straining on the Toilet Kill You?

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 

Straining on the toilet is more dangerous than you probably think (hence this ominous picture).
Straining on the toilet is more dangerous than you probably think (hence this ominous picture).
Michael Duva/Getty Images

Death by toilet. It sounds like the title of a poorly funded sci-fi flick, but for many, a simple bowel movement can cause a lot of anxiety.

Although it's rare, severe straining on the toilet can be deadly in a number of ways for people who are chronically constipated, who have recently had heart surgery or who suffer from a number of other maladies. It can cause an increase of blood pressure in the brain, which can lead to a stroke or a ruptured aneurysm. An aneurysm occurs when a blood vessel has a weakened wall, which can then rupture with increased pressure.

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For some people, a bowel movement means straining and holding their breath, a move known as a Valsalva Maneuver. This can cause an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia [source: Sikirov]. This combination can activate a nerve in your chest that signals the brain to change your heart rate and drastically lower your blood pressure. This puts your body in panic mode, creating a rapid rise in blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat [source: Oz].

A combination of holding your breath, straining and experiencing abdominal pain -- all occurrences common to constipation -- can also stimulate the vagus nerve, which connects the brain and the colon. The vagus nerve reflex causes a sharp drop in blood pressure and a sudden slowing of heart rate. It could lead to fainting (vasovagal syncope) as blood flow leaves the head and moves rapidly to the legs. And fainting on the toilet could mean a head injury [source: Mayo Clinic].

To ease both the fear and the physical symptoms of constipation, try pooping in a squatting position, with the knees raised to the chest. This can be awkward on a conventional toilet, so putting a footstool in the bathroom can help. In addition, take a closer look at your diet. Drink plenty of water and increase your fiber content. Taking magnesium and calcium can help, and be sure to get daily exercise. Even a moderate walk can invigorate your core muscles and encourage your intestines to move your waste along.

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Originally Published: Jun 4, 2015

Strain On Toilet FAQ

What happens if you strain too hard while pooping?
Although it's rare, severe straining while defecating can be deadly in a number of ways for people who are chronically constipated, have recently had heart surgery, or suffer from a number of other maladies. It can cause an increase of blood pressure in the brain, which can lead to a stroke or a ruptured aneurysm. If straining frequently, it can lead to weakened pelvic floor muscles, which may contribute to accidental bowel leakage called fecal incontinence.
What can you drink to make you poop immediately?
If you're constipated and want a natural solution, try drinking prune juice, lots of water, or a black coffee.
How do I stop straining during a bowel movements?
Some tips to make things go more smoothly include: drinking plenty of water, incorporating more fiber into your diet, exercisin regularly, and taking time to breathe and relax while on the toilet — don't try to rush. You can also consider buying and using a Squatty Potty, a popular toilet stool that positions your body in a natural, comfy squat that helps you go.
Is bright red blood in stool serious?
It depends. Is the blood in your stool or around it and on the toilet paper when you wipe? Rectal bleeding has many causes. If you've been straining, you may just have fissures, small tears in the lining of the anus. Constipation can also result in some blood in the stool. Bright red blood tends to indicate bleeding in the lower gastrointestinal tract, such as the colon or rectum. Hemorrhoids are another possibility, but they are generally accompanied by extreme itchiness and pain. More serious issues include anal or colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn/s disease). If bleeding persists, see your doctor.
What is straining?
People tend to bear down or strain when it feels impossible to poop or they're trying to relieve themselves too quickly. When you strain, the pelvic floor is tight, you may not be breathing, and your muscles are contracted and pushing down extremely hard.

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  • American Stroke Association. "What You Should Know About Cerebral Aneurysms." June 13, 2014. (Oct. 10, 2014) http://www.strokeassociation.org/STROKEORG/AboutStroke/TypesofStroke/HemorrhagicBleeds/What-You-Should-Know-About-Cerebral-Aneurysms_UCM_310103_Article.jsp
  • Charbonneau, Christina. "Ask Dr. Christina: I didn't know that chronic constipation can kill!" April 6, 2013. (Dec. 12, 2014) http://drchristina.com/ask-dr-christina-i-didnt-know-that-chronic-constipation-can-kill/
  • Mayo Clinic. " Vasovagal Syncope." Feb. 19, 2013. (Oct. 10, 2014) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vasovagal-syncope/basics/causes/con-20026900
  • Oz, Mehmet. "Death Constipation? Is it True?" The Oz Blog. May 17, 2013. (Oct. 10, 2014) http://blog.doctoroz.com/dr-oz-blog/death-by-constipation-is-it-true
  • Sikirov, B.A. "Cardio-vascular events at defecation: Are they unavoidable?" Medical Hypotheses. July 1990. (Dec. 12, 2014) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0306987790901282