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Constipation in Adults

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Constipation in adults overview

Constipation refers to a decrease in the frequency of bowel movements or difficulty in passing stools. The stool of a constipated person is typically hard because it contains less water than normal. Constipation is a symptom, not a disease.

In general, constipation is difficult to define clearly because as a symptom it varies from person to person. In addition, because we generally don't discuss the frequency of our bowel movements or observe each other having them, it is often difficult for people to know whether they are having less frequent stools, or experiencing increased difficulty in moving their bowels than others.

  • The "normal" frequency of bowel movements varies greatly, ranging from three movements per day to three per week. Such variation may occur among cultures and groups of people, among individuals, or even for an individual person without necessarily being a sign of disease. However, if a person has had a generally even frequency of bowel function that changes acutely and persists in its new form for a long period of time, this may be a reason to consult a physician. Generally, medical care should be sought if a person has not moved the bowels for three successive days, the intestinal contents harden, and the person experiences difficulty or even pain during defecation.
  • A common misconception about constipation is that wastes matter stored in the body is absorbed, and is dangerous to a person's health, and may shorten the life-span. Some people have an underlying fear that they will be "poisoned" by their own intestinal wastes (feces) if they retain the waste in their bodies for more than a certain length of time. None of this is true. There is little evidence that "colonic cleansing" improves health in individuals with normal bowel function.
  • Older people are five times more likely than younger people to complain about the onset of new constipation.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/7/2014

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