Constipation is defined as having a bowel movement fewer than three times per week. With constipation stools are usually hard, dry, small in size, and difficult to evacuate. Some people who are constipated find it painful to have a bowel movement and often experience straining, bloating, and the sensation of a full bowel.Some people think they are constipated if they do not have a bowel movement every day. However, normal stool elimination may be three times a day or three times a week, depending on the person.Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. Almost everyone experiences constipation at some point in their life, and a poor diet typically is the cause. Most constipation is temporary and not serious. Understanding its causes, prevention, and treatment will help most people find relief.
To understand constipation, it helps to know how the colon, or large intestine works. As food moves through the colon, the colon absorbs water from the food while it forms into waste product, or stool. Muscle constrictions in the colon then push the stool toward the rectum. By the time stool reaches the rectum it is solid, because most of the water has been absorbed.Constipation occurs when the colon absorbs too much water or if the colon’s muscle contractions are slow or sluggish, causing the stool to move through the colon too slowly. As a result, stools can become hard and dry. Common causes of constipation are:
- not enough fiber in the diet
- lack of physical activity (especially in the elderly)
- irritable bowel syndrome
- changes in life or routine such as aging, pregnancy or travel
- abuse of laxatives
- ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
- specific diseases or conditions, such as stroke (most common)
- problems with the colon and rectum
- problems with intestinal function (chronic idiopathic constipation)
The clinical definition of constipation is having any two of the following symptoms for at least 12 weeks – not necessarily consecutive – in the previous 12 months:
- straining during bowel movements
- lumpy or hard stool
- sensation of incomplete evacuation
- sensation of anorectal blockage/obstruction
- fewer than three bowel movements per week
It is important that you keep your healthcare team informed if any new symptoms occur, as constipation could be a sign of a more serious disorder.
The tests your board certified physician performs depend on the duration and severity of the constipation, the person’s age, and whether blood is present in the stools, recent change in bowel habits, or weight loss have occurred. Most people with constipation do not need extensive testing and can be treated with changes in the diet and exercise. However, constipation can be a sign of something more serious taking place and if two or more of the above symptoms are present, you should contact your physician immediately. Regular doctor visits always insure the best possible outcome.