Multiple therapeutic agents are currently available for the treatment of chronic idiopathic constipation and irritable bowel syndrome with constipation. A better understanding of the mechanism of action of each treatment provides important insights into expected responses and is key to optimizing treatment outcomes. Some constipation treatments, such as stimulant laxatives, may increase bowel movement frequency but are ineffective at relieving, and may even exacerbate, abdominal symptoms. On the contrary, prescription treatments, such as the guanylyl cyclase-C agonists, for example, may improve bowel symptoms and reduce visceral hypersensitivity. This review summarizes the mechanisms of action of commonly used over-the-counter and prescription therapies for chronic idiopathic constipation and irritable bowel syndrome with constipation, outlining how these mechanisms contribute to the efficacy and safety of each treatment option.