Constipation is defined medically as fewer than three stools per week and severe constipation as less than one stool per week. Some of the symptoms of constipation include lower abdominal discomfort, a sense of incomplete evacuation (the feeling that you still have to “go”) after a bowel movement, straining to have a bowel movement, hard or small stools, rectal bleeding and/or anal fissures caused by hard stools, physiological distress and/or obsession with having bowel movements.
What causes constipation?
Your colon’s main job is to absorb water from residual food as it’s passing through your digestive system. It then creates stool (waste).
The colon’s muscles eventually propel the waste out through the rectum to be eliminated. If stool remains in the colon too long, it can become hard and difficult to pass.
Poor diet frequently causes constipation. Dietary fiber and adequate water intake are necessary to help keep stools soft.
Fiber-rich foods are generally made from plants. Fiber comes in soluble and insoluble forms. The soluble fiber can dissolve in water and creates a soft, gel-like material as it passes through the digestive system.
Insoluble fiber retains most of its structure as it goes through the digestive system. Both forms of fiber join with stool, increasing its weight and size while also softening it. This makes it easier to pass through the rectum.
Stress, changes in routine, and conditions that slow muscle contractions of the colon or delay your urge to go may also lead to constipation.
Common causes of constipation include:
- low-fiber diet particularly diets high in meat, milk, or cheese
- lack of exercise
- delaying the impulse to have a bowel movement
- travel or other changes in routine
- certain medications, such as high calcium antacids and pain medications
Underlying medical problems
The following are some underlying medical problems that can bring on constipation:
- certain diseases, such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes
- problems with the colon or rectum, including intestinal obstruction, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or diverticulosis
- overuse or misuse of laxatives (medications to loosen stools)
- hormonal problems, including an underactive thyroid gland
Who is at risk for constipation?
Eating a poor diet and not exercising are major risk factors for constipation. You may also be at greater risk if you’re:
- Age 65 or older. Older adults tend to be less physically active, have underlying diseases, and eat poorer diets.
- Confined to bed. Those who have certain medical conditions, such as spinal cord injuries, often have difficulty with bowel movements.
- A woman or child. Women have more frequent episodes of constipation than men, and children are affected more often than adults.
- Pregnant. Hormonal changes and pressure on your intestines from your growing baby can lead to constipation.
Constipation usually resolves itself without the need for prescription treatment. In most cases, making lifestyle changes — such as getting more exercise, eating more fiber, and drinking more water — can help.
Allowing time for defecation, without stress or interruption, may also help. People should also not ignore the urge to have a bowel movement.
Laxatives can improve symptoms in the short-term, but people should use them with care and only when necessary. This is because some laxatives can have severe adverse effects.