Constipation: What It Is, Causes, and Complications
What is Constipation?
Constipation is uncomfortable even when it occurs only occasionally, but the medical diagnosis of constipation means having fewer than three bowel movements per week and/or stools that are hard, dry, lumpy, and difficult to pass. Constipation often comes with bloating, straining to have a bowel movement and a feeling that not all stool has passed.
Constipation is a very common disorder of the digestive system that afflicts about 42 million Americans, or 15% of the population. It is more common in women and non-Caucasians, and an estimated 40% to 60% of older adults regularly deal with constipation.
Constipation can be acute or chronic. Acute constipation is short-term, doesn’t last more than a few days, and can generally be relieved by medications and minor lifestyle changes.
Chronic constipation is long-term and can continue for months or even years. It is disruptive to a person’s personal and/or professional life and can’t be relieved by minor changes in lifestyle. Chronic constipation should be diagnosed and treated by a physician.
What Causes Constipation?
When stool spends too much time in the colon, the colon absorbs water from the stool making it hard and dry. It is much more difficult to pass stool in this condition, which causes people to ‘strain’ because the muscles in the rectum are over-working to pass the stool.
Some health conditions can increase the risk of constipation, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord illness or injury, diabetes, hypothyroidism, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Other common health conditions that can cause constipation are pregnancy, surgery, hormonal changes, and conditions that affect metabolism.
Medications and supplements can cause constipation as well – even common over-the-counter medications like antacids, diuretics, iron supplements, antihistamines, ibuprofen and naproxen.
Certain prescription medications are also known to increase the risk of constipation, including antispasmodics, anti-nauseants, blood pressure medications, narcotic pain medication, certain medications used to treat depression, and anticholinergics used to treat urinary incontinence.
In addition, overuse of laxatives can increase the risk of constipation, as the bowel can become reliant upon them to pass stool.
Lifestyle changes are another common cause of constipation, so it’s important to pay attention to changes in diet or habits, including:
- Reduction in physical activity or exercise: Lack of exercise or spending a lot of time sitting and/or lying down can increase risk of constipation. This can be a problem for people with health conditions or injuries that require them to be immobile. Maintaining a regular fitness routine is an important part of maintaining a regular bowel routine.
- Not enough fluids: Fluids, especially water and non-diuretics, keep the digestive tract moving and promote healthy bowel movements. Lack of hydration slows the stool movement through the intestine which can cause constipation. Daily fluid intake should include an adequate amount of non-diuretic fluids, such as water.
- Reduction in fiber: Fiber retains water in the intestine, making stools easier to pass. When there is a reduction in fiber, stool becomes dry and harder to pass. Maintaining a diet that includes high fiber food is an important part of preventing and relieving constipation. Consuming the daily recommended amount of fiber is also an important part of maintaining digestive health.
- Change in routine: When stool is not passed on a regular basis, or the urge to ‘go’ is ignored, stool builds up in the bowel and causes constipation. This is especially common in people who travel frequently or have other breaks in their regular routine. Maintaining a regular routine for bowel movements as much as possible helps prevent constipation. Good times of day to pass stool include first thing in the morning and 30-45 minutes after a meal.
Stool Softeners and Constipation Relief
It’s important to address constipation symptoms as quickly as possible, as severe constipation can lead to other health and digestive problems, including diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and fecal impaction.
A stool softener with docusate sodium is typically the first course of action to relieve constipation, as it is effective and has relatively infrequent and mild side effects. Docusate sodium increases the amount of water stool absorbs from the intestines, moisturizing and softening stool as it moves through the gastrointestinal tract.
Docusate sodium also tends to be fast-acting. For an oral dosage, it can produce a bowel movement within 12 to 72 hours. When administered rectally through an enema or mini-enema, results usually occur more quickly. ENEMEEZ® and ENEMEEZPlus®’s unique formula typically produces a bowel movement in 2-15 minutes.
Complications and Symptoms of Constipation
Constipation may be common, but it can have serious health consequences and should never be ignored. The symptoms of constipation can vary from person to person, so any changes in bowel movement patterns should be noted. When symptoms can’t be relieved by self-care and lifestyle changes it is important to see a physician.
Common symptoms of constipation include:
- Bloating and pain in the lower abdomen
- Less frequent bowel movements
- Slight straining to pass stool
- Hard or small feces
- A sense of incomplete evacuation of the bowel
More serious symptoms and complications from constipation include:
- Anal bleeding and fissures
- Extreme straining to pass stool
- Blood in the stool
- Lower back pain
- Inability to pass gas
- Losing weight without trying
- Perforation of the bowel
- Diverticular disease
How can you treat and prevent constipation yourself?
In addition to proper fiber intake and adequate hydration, home remedies for constipation, maintaining a regular fitness routine help prevent and relieve constipation. Aerobic activities that increase heart rate are best as it increases blood flow to the digestive tract. This blood flow produces the intestinal contractions needed for healthy, regular bowel movements. It’s also important to maintain a regular bowel routine.
What should I do if I am constipated?
It’s important to consult with a physician before deciding which constipation treatment is right for your particular situation. In addition to following medical advice, be sure to increase hydration, consume fiber, and engage in some form of aerobic exercise.
What are the signs & symptoms of constipation?
Signs and symptoms of constipation include stool that is hard, dry, lumpy, and/or ‘pellet-like’, lower abdominal pain, bloating, feeling the need to strain to pass stool, passing stool less frequently than what is usual for you, and incomplete evacuation of stool.
How does a stool softener help relieve constipation?
Stool softeners work by increasing the amount of hydration stool absorbs in the gastrointestinal tract. This softens and moistens stool, making it easier to pass. Stool softeners help prevent additional health conditions that can be associated with constipation, such as hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and fecal impaction.