Constipation is a common gastrointestinal problem that affects approximately 30 percent of the general population and is most common in women, children and the elderly. Even though it is a common problem, constipation should not be ignored as it can have serious side-effects if it persists. Patients should not be embarrassed to discuss their symptoms with their doctor. Constipation may be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as colon cancer, which should be promptly diagnosed and treated.

Symptoms of Constipation

  • Pass fewer than three stools per week
  • Strain excessively during bowel movements
  • Have the sensation of incomplete evacuation
  • Experience intense rectal or abdominal pain
  • Pass blood in the stool
  • Need to manually remove stool

If your symptoms are mild and have been occurring for a short amount of time, you may want to wait before going to a doctor. However, if you experience some of the more serious symptoms like intense pain, bloody stool or a need for manual removal of stool, you should see a doctor right away. Also, not having a bowel movement every day doesn’t automatically mean you have constipation. A person’s bowel habits can fluctuate, so you should consider the above signs to determine if you are suffering from constipation.

Risk Factors for Constipation

  • Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Specific diseases: stroke, diabetes, thyroid disease, Parkinson's disease, colon cancer or irritable bowel syndrome
  • A disruption of regular diet or routine
  • Overuse of laxatives which, over time, weaken the bowel muscles
  • Structural and functional abnormalities like anal fissures or spinal cord lesions
  • Some medications: narcotic pain medications, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, iron supplements

Although constipation can be caused by a wide range of things, it is usually a disorder of bowel function rather than a structural problem with the rectum or intestines. If you ingest inadequate fluid or fiber, your stool may move through the bowels slowly and the stool can harden.

Treatments for Constipation

The most common way people treat constipation is through the use of laxatives. There are many different kinds of laxatives, from stimulants to stool softeners, and some are safer than others. However, laxatives can become habit forming, and bowel movements could end up depending upon them, so it is recommended that you seek milder forms of treatment before trying laxatives.

If laxatives do not work a doctor may use a gloved finger to clear hard stool from the rectum (disimpaction). You may also receive an enema to help facilitate smoother bowel movements. If constipation is chronic, severe and has persisted through other treatments, surgery may be recommended to remove part of the colon. If your constipation stems from a disease like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Parkinson’s disease, treatment of these diseases may improve your constipation when constipation-focused procedures fail. When severe constipation is the only symptom, underlying diseases will be investigated through a colonoscopy or blood tests.

Lifestyle Changes to Treat Constipation

Experiencing constipation and having to go through all of the treatments can be difficult. Fortunately, there are some changes in your day-to-day life that you can make to help treat and prevent constipation from occurring.

  • Increase fiber intake eating lots of fiber-rich foods promotes regularity. Fruits, vegetables and whole-grain breads are easy items that can be added to most diets to reach the recommended 20 to 35 grams per day. You can also try fiber supplements.
  • Drink plenty of fluids- the typical amount of water you should drink in one day is 6 to 8 glasses, but this may vary based on factors such as age, weight, height, sex and level of activity. Drinking less caffeine can also reduce your chances of constipation. Caffeine can cause dehydration, which can result in constipation.
  • Exercise- regular exercise can help stimulate the bowels.
  • Take regular restroom breaks- do not ignore the urge to use the bathroom. This can cause more fecal matter to accumulate and eventually cause constipation.