Bowel movements differ from person to person. Some people may experience one or more bowel movements on a daily basis, and others may pass a stool every other day. However, when passing a stool becomes difficult, or when it occurs fewer than normal, the condition is described as constipation. In general, constipation is described as performing fewer than three bowel movements in a week. This is a common occurrence, but when the condition lasts for three weeks or more, it can be described as chronic constipation.

Symptoms of constipation

Constipation causes difficulty in passing stool. This can be a painful and frustrating condition for some people, with some experiencing a mild discomfort in the early stages. When stool builds up, it hardens and becomes even more difficult to pass. One or more of the following symptoms can be experienced:

  • Hard stools
  • The need to strain to pass the stool
  • A feeling that the bowel did not empty after passing a stool
  • There is a need for assistance to pass a stool, like pressing on the stomach or removing the stool with a finger.
  • Abdominal pains
  • Swollen abdomen

Causes of constipation

Constipation can be caused by quite a number of conditions. Some of the common causes are:

  • Not drinking enough water
  • Inadequate fiber intake
  • Stress
  • Intake of large quantities of dairy products
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Colon cancer
  • Pregnancy
  • Pain medications or antidepressants
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Bowel Stricture
  • Rectal cancer
  • Rectocele
  • Stroke
  • Injury to the spinal chord

Diagnosing Constipation

In most cases, constipation is easy to diagnose. However, if constipation is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as colon cancer, the procedure of diagnosing the condition can be more difficult. In most cases, the physician will order a series of tests to find the underlying causes of constipation and a blood test is typically performed if hormonal imbalance is suspected. The doctor may also want to see if there are any obstructions in the colon and order a barium test or a colonoscopy.

If the patient does not display any illnesses, there is a possibility that the patient suffers from colonic inertia wherein the colon contracts poorly or is obstructed. When this happens, the patient needs to exert an unusual amount of effort during bowel movement. The patient may also be experiencing an inability to relax the pelvic muscles during bowel movement due to weak pelvic muscles.

The doctor may also order the following tests when diagnosing constipation:

  • Anorectal manometry – a procedure to determine the coordination of your muscles during bowel movement
  • Colonic Transit Study – a procedure to see how well food passes through the intestines
  • Defecography – X-ray is performed during defecation

Preventing Constipation

If constipation is a symptom of another medical condition, it cannot be prevented. However, if no other illnesses are present, constipation can be prevented by doing the following:

  • Introducing a sufficient amount of fiber in the diet by eating a healthy serving of fruits, whole-grain bread, and cereal.
  • Exercising regularly or living an active lifestyle
  • Do not resist the urge to perform bowel movements
  • Drinking at least eight glasses of water daily, unless advised not to by a doctor
  • Limit the intake of beverages containing caffeine
  • Limit the intake of dairy products

When to call a doctor

If constipation lasts for more than week, or if you’ve been experiencing the condition frequently during the past months, you should seek medical attention. You should also call a doctor if you’re experiencing any one of the following:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Sudden weight loss without any known cause
  • Severe pain during bowel movements

Who are at risk?

Constipation is more frequent among the following people:

  • Senior citizens
  • Women
  • Those who are dehydrated
  • Those who perform fewer physical activities
  • Those who are under medications
  • Those who have a low-fiber diet

Complications of constipation

When chronic constipation is experienced, there is a chance that other complications will develop as well. These include:

  • Tears in the anus – hard stools can cause minute tears in the anus
  • Fecal impaction – accumulation of hardened stools in the intestines
  • Hemorrhoids – veins in the anus are swollen
  • Rectal Prolapse – excessive straining can cause a small part of the rectum to protrude from the anus

  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse

  • American Gastroenterological Association
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