What is Constipation?
Constipation is described as fewer than three stools per week as well as hard, dry, and small stools that are painful or difficult to pass.
Bowel movement patterns differ for people. While some may have frequent stools such 2-3 times per day, others may have as little as 3 bowel movements per week. Constipation is therefore related to a change in the norm of one’s regular habit.
Constipation usually lasts for a short time and is not dangerous. There are steps that can be taken to relieve or prevent constipation.
Who Is Most Likely to Get Constipation?
Constipation affects all ages of people in the United States. The following groups are more likely to become constipated, however:
- Pregnant women or women who just gave birth
- Advanced age individuals
- Lower socioeconomic status
- Post-surgery patients
- People who take certain anti-depressants or types of pain medications
How Common Is Constipation?
Constipation is a very common complaint that afflicts over 42 million people in the United States.
Does Constipation Have Any Complications?
Frequent and lasting constipation may lead to illnesses such as fecal impaction, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, or rectal prolapse.
Hemorrhoids usually occur from straining during a bowel movement. They are inflamed, swollen veins around the anus and lower rectum. Hemorrhoids may cause bleeding per rectum.
These are small tears at the anus. They may cause pain, bleeding, and itching.
Rectal prolapse refers to the slippage of the rectum outside the anus. Straining during defecation is one of several causes of rectal prolapse. It may cause mucus leak from the anus. Elderly people who have a history of constipation are most prone to rectal prolapse. It is also more common in postmenopausal women.
Fecal impaction occurs most commonly in the elderly and children. Hard stool packs the lower intestines and rectum to the extent that the normal pushing action of the colon is unable to push the stool out.
What Causes Constipation?
There are many causes of constipation. Among the most common are:
• Slow movement of feces through the colon
• Pelvic disorders, especially in women, that delay emptying of the colon
• An irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) variant that has symptoms of both IBS and constipation, called IBS with constipation, or IBS-C
Constipation may worsen due to the following factors:
Low Fiber Diet
Fiber helps soften stools. Liquids help fiber keep stools soft.
Decreased physical activity, poor dietary fiber, and medications are some reasons constipation is common in the elderly.
Lack of Physical Activity
Physical activity helps regulate the bowel. Less activity stemming from lifestyle, trauma or other illnesses frequently lead to constipation.
Medications used to treat other health problems can cause constipation. They include:
- Antacids that contain aluminum and calcium
- Anticholinergics used to treat muscle spasms
- Anti-seizure medications used to decrease abnormal electrical activity in the brain that cause seizures
- Antispasmodics used to reduce abdominal cramps
- Calcium channel blockers used to treat diseases of the heart
- Diuretic used to remove fluid from the blood through the kidneys
- Iron supplement used to boost iron levels in the blood
- Medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease
- Opiate narcotic used to treat pain
- Some anti-depressants
Ignoring the Urge to Defecate
Frequently ignoring the urge to defecate will over time diminish the sensation to do so and lead to constipation. This may occur because you do not want to use toilets outside of your home, do not have access to a toilet, or may feel too busy to go.
Daily Routine and Lifestyle Changes
Changes to daily and life and routines may lead to constipation. For example, your bowel movements can change:
- During travel
- When pregnant
- As you age
Certain health problems cause stool to move more slowly through the intestinal tract, causing constipation. These problems include:
- Brain and spine disorders such as Parkinson’s disease
- Brain and spinal cord injuries
- Hypothyroid disorder
Diseases of the GI tract that narrow or compress the colon and rectum can cause constipation. They include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease or diverticulitis that cause swelling and or inflammation
Functional Gastrointestinal Problems
Functional gastrointestinal disorders refer to illnesses where the GI tract behaves abnormally yet there is no clear evidence of damage. IBS with constipation is a common example of such a disorder.