Constipation is infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools. Constipation is a common gastrointestinal problem.
What's considered normal frequency for bowel movements varies widely. In general, however, you're probably experiencing constipation if you pass fewer than three stools a week, and your stools are hard and dry.
Fortunately, most cases of constipation are temporary. Simple lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise, drinking more fluids and eating a high-fiber diet, can go a long way toward alleviating constipation. Constipation may also be treated with over-the-counter laxatives.
Not having a bowel movement every day doesn't necessarily mean you're constipated. You likely have constipation, however, if you've had at least two of the following signs and symptoms for at least three of the past six months:
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you experience an unexplained onset of constipation or change in bowel habits, or if symptoms are severe and last longer than three weeks. Also seek medical care if you experience any of the following signs or symptoms, which might indicate a more serious health problem:
Constipation most commonly occurs when waste or stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract, causing it to become hard and dry.
Normally, the waste products of digestion (stool) are propelled through your intestines by muscle contractions. In the large intestine (colon), most of the water and salt in this waste mixture are reabsorbed because they're essential for many of your body's functions.
However, when there is not enough fluid or fiber-rich food in your diet — or if the colon's muscle contractions are slow — the stool hardens, dries and passes through your colon too slowly. This is the root cause of constipation.
You may also experience constipation if the muscles you use to move your bowels aren't properly coordinated. This problem is called pelvic floor dysfunction (anismus), and it causes you to strain with most bowel movements — even soft ones.
A number of factors can cause an intestinal slowdown, including:
In rare cases, constipation may signal more-serious medical conditions, such as colorectal cancer, hormonal disturbances or autoimmune diseases. In children, constipation might indicate Hirschsprung's disease, a congenital condition that results from missing nerve cells in the colon.
Children may also become constipated if they are afraid of or unwilling to use the toilet. Older children may ignore or forget to attend to bowel movements.
Your digestive tract stretches from your mouth to your anus. It includes the organs necessary to digest food and process waste. ...
You're more likely to have constipation if you are:
Women are more frequently affected by constipation, and children more than adults.
If you're pregnant, you may have bouts of constipation because of hormonal changes. Later in your pregnancy, pressure on your intestines from your expanding uterus also can cause constipation.
Although constipation can be extremely bothersome, it usually isn't serious. If it persists, and especially if straining results, you may develop certain complications:
Preparing for your appointment
You'll likely first seek medical care for constipation from your family doctor or general practitioner. You may be referred to a specialist in digestive disorders (gastroenterologist) if your doctor suspects a more advanced case of constipation.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important, in case time runs out. For constipation, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor will take your medical history, perform a physical exam and ask about any prescription or over-the-counter medications you're taking. Your doctor will also want to rule out several conditions in diagnosing constipation. These include a blockage in your small intestine or colon (intestinal obstruction), a narrowing of the colon, an endocrine condition, such as hypothyroidism, or an electrolyte disturbance, such as excessive calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia).
Extensive testing is usually reserved for people with severe symptoms or for older adults with new-onset constipation. You may undergo these diagnostic procedures:
Treatments and drugs
In most cases, simple changes in your diet and lifestyle can help relieve symptoms and manage constipation. Less often, you may need medical treatment. Above all, recognize that a successful treatment program can take time and effort.
Diet and lifestyle changes
There are several different types of laxatives:
Treating underlying causes
If you're pregnant and have constipation, try eating lots of high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Drink plenty of fluids and get as much exercise as you can. Discuss with your doctor any plan, including exercise, to treat your constipation. Swimming and walking may be good choices.
In many cases, simple changes to your lifestyle and diet can help relieve the symptoms of constipation. Several alternative approaches may also provide relief, although they have not been studied extensively.
To help prevent constipation:
Last Updated: 2011-01-14
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