What happens when you hold in your poop? It’s quite simple, really. Stool travels from the rectum back up to the colon, allowing the water in the stool to reabsorb into the body. Poop, sans water, lives on in the colon as a thoroughly unwelcome guest in your gut. Should’ve kicked it out when you had the chance.
“If people continue to ignore the urgency to go to the bathroom they can develop constipation,” gastroenterologist Dr. Sarina Pasricha, told Fatherly. “The nerves in the rectum can become damaged and respond inappropriately to stool in the rectum. In essence, your brain stops responding to the urge.”
Constipation, which affects approximately 4 million people, can escalate beyond uncomfortable bloating and gas. Harder stools and less responsive muscles often cause people to push harder when they have to go. This can make veins surrounding the anus swell, resulting in hemorrhoids — essentially varicose veins, inside or outside the anus. They itch, hurt, and can result in blood and mucus in the stool and during wiping. Another possibility is developing tears in the tissue, known as anal fissure, from pushing out hard, painful poops.
In rare instances, there’s the risk of impaction. That’s when so much stool gets backed up into the intestines that your body cannot push out the blockage. The resulting pain and vomiting will land you in the ER.
As troubling as all of those risks may be, one common, often overlooked risk is rectal hyposensitivity. In a word, the rectum become desensitized and demands more poop before telling the brain that it’s time to go. “The anal muscles tighten up instead of relaxing when you try to have a bowel movement,” Pasricha says, adding that, in severe cases, this can lead to problems urinating and pain during sex, for women. Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse, agrees that it’s a vicious cycle. “When you hold in your poop, these same muscles send a signal to your brain to stop responding and can lead to slower emptying of the colon in the future.”
Fortunately, holding in your poop only on special occasions shouldn’t cause any problems. It takes denying yourself repeatedly, over time, to cause most of these lasting problems. “Holding it is ok once in a while, but should definitely not become habit or a regular occurrence,” Pasricha says. “People may not realize it is a problem until they start to develop damage to their muscles and nerves.”