Constipation occurs when stool or waste material moves too slowly through the large intestine. Feces that stay in the bowel too long before elimination become hard and dry. This results in difficult, painful, and infrequent bowel movements. In many cases, constipation is harmless, but it can significantly lower your quality of life. It’s not a disease, but it might be a symptom of a disease.
Many people believe they are constipated when they’re not, thinking that less than one bowel movement a day is abnormal. In fact, as little as twice a week is fine so long as you go easily when you feel the need. A normal bowel movement, no matter how often, should be soft yet hold its shape and be easy to pass without needing to strain.
When food leaves the stomach, it’s still a partly digested mush. Your body recuperates valuable fluid from it while it’s moved down the colon (large intestine). This transforms it into normal feces. The longer it stays in the colon, the drier it gets. This makes it harder.
Obviously, the quantity also increases if you wait to go to the toilet. A large, hard stool can be painful and difficult to pass. This can make people, especially children, reluctant to go, creating a vicious cycle. It’s a common pattern of chronic constipation in children, which often begins when they start school. Many young children avoid school toilets and end up waiting too long.
Chronic constipation can last for months or years. It’s usually caused by poor diet, some other disease, or regularly ignoring the urge to go to the toilet. Low-fibre diets and insufficient water intake are common causes of constipation.
While most otherwise healthy people will occasionally experience constipation, certain diseases or conditions can also cause it, such as:
Acute constipation starts suddenly and lasts for a few days. It can be caused by a blockage, prolonged inactivity, medication, dehydration, or missing a bowel movement. Pregnant women can develop constipation when the womb presses on the intestine. Sometimes, general anesthesia affects the bowel muscles for a few days after surgery. Lead poisoning and swallowing indigestible objects are other rare causes.
Examples of medications that can provoke acute constipation include:
Overuse of laxatives eventually makes the bowels less sensitive to the need to eliminate feces and can cause chronic constipation. The bowels become dependent on laxatives to work, and this can lead to bowel distension and sometimes a condition called melanosis coli.
People who are bedridden can develop severe acute blockages called fecal impaction. The stools may have to be removed by their doctor.
Symptoms of constipation can include:
Constipation can cause complications. Very large, hard stools can stretch the anus, tearing the skin. These anal fissures can be very painful. Occasionally, a really tough bowel movement causes rectal prolapse, in which a small section of intestinal lining pokes out of the anus and has to be pushed back in. Hemorrhoids can also be caused by the chronic pushing of constipation.
If you have experienced constipation lasting longer than 7 days or your constipation has been accompanied by vomiting, blood in the stool, weight loss, a swollen and painful abdomen, fever, or small, pencil-sized stool, seek medical attention.
If constipation is a problem, see your doctor. A physical exam will show whether there are hard stools in your intestine or any unusual masses in your stomach. This will include a digital rectal exam to check muscle tone.
Your doctor might do a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. This involves using a lighted tube with a camera on the end to look into part or all of the large intestine. A barium enema allows abnormalities of the large intestine to be seen on an X-ray. These procedures require some preparation to empty the bowel so that it can be seen on X-ray.
Constipation can be treated medically, but lifestyle changes are often very important. The following practices can both treat and prevent constipation:
Medications are usually brought in if changing diet and habits doesn’t work. Most laxatives should be used sparingly as needed.
These medications can create dependence, so use them only as needed, as directed by your health care professional.
*All medications have both common (generic) and brand names. The brand name is what a specific manufacturer calls the product (e.g., Tylenol®). The common name is the medical name for the medication (e.g., acetaminophen). A medication may have many brand names, but only one common name. This article lists medications by their common names. For information on a given medication, check our Drug Information database. For more information on brand names, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
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