How can straining on the toilet kill you?

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.

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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  • American Stroke Association. "What You Should Know About Cerebral Aneurysms." June 13, 2014. (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Charbonneau, Christina. "Ask Dr. Christina: I didn't know that chronic constipation can kill!" April 6, 2013. (Dec. 12, 2014)
  • Mayo Clinic. " Vasovagal Syncope." Feb. 19, 2013. (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Oz, Mehmet. "Death Constipation? Is it True?" The Oz Blog. May 17, 2013. (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Sikirov, B.A. "Cardio-vascular events at defecation: Are they unavoidable?" Medical Hypotheses. July 1990. (Dec. 12, 2014)