What is constipation?
Constipation is one of the most common reasons for visiting the doctor. About 2.5 million Americans talk to their doctor every year about constipation. If you occasionally have constipation, you can easily find constipation relief with some simple at home practices.
Constipation is not a disease but a symptom some people experience. It occurs when you have less bowel movements than usual. They are uncomfortable, difficult to pass or take a long time to pass, and are a hard stool.
You may have more or less bowel movements than other people, but there isn’t a right number. Regularity is different for everyone.
Signs of constipation
Symptoms of constipation may vary, but you may have constipation if you have some signs including:
- Less than three bowel movements a week
- Hard, dry stool
- Small amounts of stool
- Feeling uncomfortable
- Difficult bowel movements
- Painful bowel movements
- Stomach cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling sluggish
- Straining during bowel movements
Causes of constipation
Normally, the colon absorbs water and makes stools as food passes through. Your body absorbs most of the water as the muscles contract and push the stool toward the rectum. This makes the stool solid. If the muscles don’t contract well, the stool moves slowly, and your body absorbs too much water. The stool then turns hard and dry.
Some causes of constipation can include:
- Not enough exercise
- Not enough fluids
- Not enough fiber
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
- Abusing laxatives
- Intestinal disorders
- Other diseases
Who can have constipation?
Anyone can have constipation at any time. Older people are more likely to become constipated, but people who have intestinal disorders, other diseases, or are pregnant may be more likely to have constipation.
Children often get constipated, which can occur especially during toilet training or during life changes, like attending a new school or daycare or moving to a new house. Some children may find it painful to pass a stool, which can make them ignore urges or hold it back and make the constipation worse.
Diagnosis for constipation
Constipation can be a symptom of other diseases, so it is important to speak to your doctor if it is persistent. Your doctor will take your personal and medical history and a list of your symptoms.
Treatments for constipation
Most of the time, constipation isn’t serious. You can normally manage it by making adjustments to your diet and lifestyle.
However, you may find that you are uncomfortable and need some constipation relief. You may be able to use some self-care practices or prescriptions from your doctor to help.
You may be able to find constipation relief with over-the-counter medications. These may include different types of laxatives such as:
Sometimes, your medications may be the cause of your constipation. You may need to talk with your doctor to adjust your prescription or find another alternative.
Home care and remedies
- Drink more water
- Avoid alcohol
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Eat more whole grains and beans
- Keep a regular toilet routine
- Place your feet on a stool while on the toilet to make it easier to pass stool
Some people may find chronic constipation relief with biofeedback therapy. Biofeedback is used for constipation caused by anorectal dysfunction—problems with the anus or rectum. It helps retrain the muscles that control the release of bowel movements.
Possible complications and side effects
Most of the time, constipation isn’t serious, but sometimes constipation can cause complications. These may include:
Sometimes your constipation may be a sign of other problems. You should talk to your doctor if you:
- Have blood in your stools
- Are often constipated and it lasts a long time
- Have lost weight
- Feel tired all the time
If you strain during a bowel movement, some blood may appear in the toilet. However, if you have blood in your stool, or nothing you do helps your constipation, you should speak to your doctor.
You should be careful when using laxatives. They may give you fast constipation relief but they could cause you more problems. If you overuse them or abuse them, they may make your constipation worse.
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Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital: "Constipation."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Constipation."
National Health Service: "Constipation."
National Health Service: "Constipation in children."
National Institute of Health National Institute on Aging: "Concerned About Constipation?"