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Constipation is a condition of the digestive system where a person (or other animal) experiences difficulty in eliminating feces. Most doctors do not consider a person constipated unless they are experiencing difficulty passing hard, dry stool, and there has been a decrease in the number of bowel movements from the amount that's normal for the person.
A person can present with a decrease in bowel movements, along with signs of diarrhea and still be considered constipated. This is usually due to the stool being impacted in the colon which impedes normal absorption of water, causing the waste material that does come out to be watery.
Last Updated - 22nd November 2005
Causes of Constipation
- Constriction, where part of the intestine or rectum is narrowed or blocked, not allowing feces to move past
- Paralysis, where peristaltic action is diminished or absent, so that feces are not moved along
- Excessive drying of feces, due to dehydration, forming a hard bulk that cannot be eliminated
- Insufficient intake of food or dietary fiber, so that a suitable bolus is not formed
- Psychosomatic constipation, based on anxiety or unfamiliarity with surroundings. Two forms: functional constipation, and constipation-predominant irritable bowel syndrome, characterized by a combination of constipation and abdominal discomfort and/or pain.
These causes may have a multiplicity of causes themselves.
People may take laxatives to try to eliminate constipation. Earlier remedies included enemas.
Constipation means that a person has three bowel movements or fewer in a week. The stool is hard and dry. Sometimes it is painful to pass. The subject may feel "draggy" and full.
A common misconception holds that one should have a bowel movement every day. This is not really true. There is no "right" number of bowel movements. Each person's body finds its own normal number of bowel movements. It depends on the food one eats, how much one exercises, and other things.
At one time or another, almost everyone gets constipated. In most cases, it lasts for a short time and is not serious. When one understands what causes constipation, one can take steps to prevent it.
Changing what one eats and drinks and how much one exercises will help relieve and prevent constipation. Here are other steps one may take.
- Eat more fiber - Fiber helps form soft, bulky stool. It is found in many vegetables, fruits, and grains. Be sure to add fiber a little at a time, so your body gets used to it slowly. Limit foods that have little or no fiber such as ice cream, cheese, meat, snacks like chips and pizza, and processed foods such as instant mashed potatoes or already-prepared frozen dinners. The chart below lists some high-fiber foods.
- Acorn squash, raw
- Broccoli, raw
- Brussels sprouts, raw
- Cabbage, raw
- Carrots, raw
- Cauliflower, raw
- Spinach, cooked
- Zucchini, raw
- Breads, Cereals, and Beans
- Black-eyed peas, cooked
- Kidney beans, cooked
- Lima beans, cooked
- Whole-grain cereal, cold (All-Bran, Total, Bran Flakes)
- Whole-grain cereal, hot (oatmeal, Wheatena)
- Whole-wheat or 7-grain bread
- Consume liquid - Liquid helps keep the stool soft and easy to pass, therefore making it important drink suitable amounts fluids. Attempt to abstain from caffeine or alcohol, as caffeine and alcohol dry out the digestive system.
- Participate in regular exercise - Regular exercise helps your digestive system stay active and healthy. A short, brisk walk every day has been shown to have beneficial effects.
- Allow yourself enough time to have a bowel movement - Sometimes we feel so hurried that we don't pay attention to our body's needs. Make sure you don't ignore the urge to have a bowel movement.
- Only use laxatives on doctors advice - Laxatives are medicines that will cause bowel movement. Most people who are mildly constipated do not need laxatives. However, if previous methods have little or no effect, your doctor may recommend laxatives for a limited time. Your doctor will tell you if you need a laxative and what type is most effective for your circumstance. Laxatives come in many forms: liquid, chewing gum, pills, and powder that you mix with water, for example.
- Consult your doctor on any current medications you are taking - Some medicines can cause constipation. They include calcium pills, opioids, some antacids, iron pills, diuretics (water pills), and certain antidepressants. If you take medicine for other reasons, ask your doctor if constipation is a side-effect.
- Add 2 tablespoons of wheat bran to cereal or soup.
- Try a product, such as Citrucel, Metamucil or FiberCon that contains bulk-forming agent. Start with 1 tablespoon and drink extra water to avoid bloating.
- Avoid foods that are high in fat.
- Avoid foods that are high in sugar.
- Drink 1-1/2 to 2 quarts of water and other fluids daily.
- Exercise more.
- Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge. If you ignore the urge, the stool will eventually become dry and difficult to pass.
Points to Remember
- Constipation affects almost everyone at one time or another.
- Many people think they're constipated when really they aren't.
- In most cases, following these simple tips will help prevent constipation:
- Eating a variety of foods, especially beans, bran, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Drinking plenty of liquids.
- Exercising regularly.
- Not ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement.
- Understanding that normal bowel habits are different for everyone.
- If one's bowel habits change, check with one's doctor.
- Most people with mild constipation do not need laxatives. However, doctors may recommend laxatives for a limited time for people with chronic constipation.
- Medicines that you take for another problem might cause constipation.
- Use a stool softener.
- Use a very mild laxative such as milk of magnesia.
- Do not use mineral oil or any other laxative for more than 2 weeks without a doctor's approval.
- In an infant or child up to 10, place the child in a warm bath with 2 ounces of baking soda in the tub. This will relax the muscles and allow the child to pass the stool.
- Do not give laxatives to a child without a doctor's approval.
When To Call a Physician
- If constipation persists after home treatment for several days.
- If rectal bleeding is heavy.
- If the blood/stool is black.
- If rectal bleedings lasts more than 3 days.
- If you continue to have sharp or severe abdominal pain.
- If constipation or major changes in bowel movements continue after 1 week of home treatment.
- If you experience stool leakage (fecal incontinence).
- If your stools have become consistently more narrow (no wider than a pencil).
- If you are unable to have a bowel movement without using laxatives.
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