WHAT IS CONSTIPATION?
Constipation is one of the most frequent digestive problems in the United States. Around 16 out of 100 U.S. adults suffer from constipation. This figure doubles among adults over the age of 60.
It is defined as having hard, dry bowel movements, and passing stool fewer than three times a week.
Everyone’s bowel habits are different. Some people go three times a day, whereas others go three times a week.
However, you might be constipated if you experience the following symptoms :
- Fewer than three bowel movements a week
- Passing lumpy, hard, or dry stools
- Straining or pain during bowel movements
- A sensation of fullness, even after having a bowel movement
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) recommends seeking medical advice if symptoms do not go away or if you notice the following :
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Blood in your stool
- Persistent abdominal pain
- Pain in the lower back
- A feeling that gas is trapped
- Unexplained weight loss
- A sudden change in bowel movements
A healthcare professional may carry out tests to rule out a more severe condition, like colorectal cancer or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Your colon’s primary job is to absorb water from residual food as it is passing through your digestive system. It then makes stool (waste).
The colon’s muscles ultimately propel the waste out through the rectum to be removed. If stool remains in the colon too long, it could become hard and difficult to pass.
Poor diet commonly causes constipation. Dietary fiber and adequate water intake are needed to help keep stools soft.
Fiber-rich foods are generally plant-based. Fiber comes in soluble as well as insoluble forms. Soluble fiber could dissolve in water and creates a soft, gel-like material as it passes through the digestive system.
Insoluble fiber retains most of its structure when it passes through the digestive system. Both forms of fiber join with stool, increasing their weight and size while also softening it. This makes it easier to go through the rectum.
Stress, changes in routine, and conditions that slow muscle contractions of the colon or delay your urge to go might also lead to constipation.
Common causes of constipation include :
- Low fiber diet, especially diets high in meat, milk, and cheese
- Low exercise levels
- Delaying the need to have a bowel movement
- Travel or other changes in routine
- Medications, including specific antacids, pain medications, diuretics, and some treatments for Parkinson’s disease
- Older age (constipation affects about one-third of people aged 60 and over)
Underlying Health Issues
The following underlying health conditions could bring on constipation :
- Certain conditions, like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes
- Issues with the colon or rectum, including intestinal obstruction, IBS, or diverticulosis
- Overuse or misuse of laxatives
- Hormonal issues, including an underactive thyroid gland
CONSTIPATION RELIEF AND TREATMENT
Changing your diet and increasing your physical activity level are the easiest and fastest ways to treat and avoid constipation
You could try the following techniques as well :
- Every day, drink 1.5 to 2 quarts of unsweetened fluids, such as water, to hydrate the body.
- Limit the consumption of alcohol and caffeinated drinks, which cause dehydration.
- Add fiber-rich foods to your diet, like raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, prunes, or bran cereal. Your daily consumption of fiber should be between 20 to 35 grams.
- Cut down on low-fiber foods, like meat, milk, cheese, and processed foods.
- Aim for approximately 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, with a goal of 30 minutes per day at least five times per week. Try walking, swimming, and biking.
- If you feel the desire to have a bowel movement, do not delay. The longer you wait, the harder your stool could become.
- Ask your doctor about bowel training to get your body used to pass stool 15 to 45 minutes after breakfast every day.
- Raise your knees by placing your feet on a footstool when having a bowel movement.
- When using the bathroom, give yourself plenty of time, and try to relax your muscles.
- Use laxatives fairly. A healthcare professional might prescribe laxatives or enemas for a short period of time to help soften your stools. Never use laxatives for more than two weeks without talking with a healthcare professional. Your body might develop a dependence on them.
- Ask a healthcare professional if any of your medications may be causing constipation.
If home remedies do not work, a healthcare professional might recommend an over-the-counter laxative, such as :
- Fiber supplements
- Osmotic agents, like Milk of Magnesia
- Stool softeners
- Lubricants, like mineral oil
If you still have trouble with constipation, a healthcare professional might prescribe medications to help, such as :
- Lubiprostone, which increases the fluid levels in the intestine
- Linaclotide or plecanatide, could help make bowel movements more regular for people with long-term constipation or IBS
- Prucalopride, which could help the colon move the stool along
A healthcare professional may also advise that you stop taking specific medications that may cause constipation
Other strategies that might help are :
- Biofeedback therapy could help a person retrain their muscles
- An enema
- A procedure to manually remove feces to offer relief
- Surgery to remove a blockage
- Long-term treatment for a chronic condition, like IBS
HOW TO PREVENT CONSTIPATION
Tips for the prevention of constipation are similar to those for relieving it.
Try the following :
- Eat enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Eat high-fiber foods and ask a healthcare provider about using fiber supplements.
- Include prunes and bran cereal into your diet.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they could lead to dehydration.
- Get regular exercise.
- Think about adding probiotics to your diet, such as those found in yogurt and kefir with live active cultures.
- Train your muscles to have a bowel movement at the same time every day.
Some studies have shown that adding probiotics could be helpful for people with chronic constipation. If you add fiber supplements, remember to drink plenty of liquids. Liquids help fiber work more efficiently.
HOW IS CONSTIPATION DIAGNOSED?
If constipation persists, or if you have concerns about your symptoms, it might be time to see a healthcare professional.
A healthcare professional
- Will ask questions about your symptoms, medical history, and any medicines or underlying conditions
- May carry out a physical examination, including a rectal examination
- Might do some blood tests to check your blood count, electrolytes, and thyroid function
They might recommend additional tests to identify the cause of your symptoms. Tests might include the following :
A marker study, also known as a colorectal transit study, is used to test how food is moving through your colon. For this test, you will swallow a pill that contains small markers that will show up on an X-ray.
Numerous abdominal X-rays will be taken over the next few days so the healthcare professional could visualize how the food is moving through your colon and how well your intestinal muscles are working.
You might also be asked to eat a diet high in fiber during the test.
Anorectal manometry is a test used to assess anal sphincter muscle function. For this test, a healthcare professional will insert a slim tube with a balloon tip into your anus. When the tube is inside, it will inflate the balloon and gradually pull it out. This test enables them to measure your anal sphincter’s muscle strength and see whether your muscles are contracting properly.
Barium enema X-ray
A barium enema X-ray is a kind of test used to examine the colon. For this test, you will drink a special liquid the night prior to the test to clean out the bowel.
The actual test involves the insertion of a dye known as barium into your rectum, using a lubricated tube. The barium highlights the rectum and colon region. This enables the healthcare professional to better view these areas on an X-ray.
A colonoscopy is another kind of test healthcare professionals use to examine the colon. In this test, a healthcare professional will check your colon using a colonoscope. This is a tube equipped with a camera and a light source.
A sedative and pain medication is usually given, so you will likely not even remember the examination and should feel no pain.
In preparation for this test, you will only be on a liquid-only diet for one to three days. You might have to take a laxative or enema the night before the test to clean out the bowel.
Constipation is a common problem that affects people as they get older, when they use specific medications, or if they do not have much fiber in their diet.
The majority of cases of constipation are mild and easily treated with changes in diet and exercise.
If you are experiencing chronic constipation or constipation along with other bowel changes, it is important that you talk with a healthcare professional.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from constipation, our expert providers at Specialty Care Clinics will take care of your health and help you recover.