What Causes Constipation?
Constipation means irregular or infrequent movement of the bowels. People don’t like to talk about constipation, so sometimes it is hard to find information about this gastrointestinal problem.
Constipation is completely normal, as long as it isn’t chronic, or happening all the time. Everyone will get constipated at some point in their life, and as much as 2% of the US population deals with chronic (or constant) constipation.
Constipation is the most common digestive problem in the United States, more common than diarrhea or vomiting. Constipation makes a person feel bloated, have terrible headaches, act irritable, and all the other symptoms, but it is also time-consuming and expensive to correct. The CDC reported this year that chronic constipation leads to over 2.5 million doctor’s office visits a year, representing tens of millions of dollars in medication and treatment.
Constipation symptoms happen when bowel movements are few and far between. The acceptable length of time between bowel movements is different from person to person, but generally three days is the longest a person should go without having a bowel movement. After three days, the stool becomes harder and nearly impossible to pass and can cause health problems.
The definition of constipation is really pretty scientific–you are labeled “constipated” if you have two or more of the following constipation symptoms for at least 3 months:
- Straining hard during a bowel movement more than 25% of the time.
- Hard stools more than 25% of the time.
- Incomplete bowel movement more than 25% of the time.
- Two or fewer bowel movements in a week.
What Causes Constipation?
Constipation is usually caused by a minor bowel function problem rather than something structurally broken inside the body. There are many causes of constipation–the most common causes are:
- Not drinking enough water
- Not eating enough fiber
- A disruption of routine, diet, or sleep; this is sometimes called “Traveling constipation”
- Not being active enough, being immobile, lack of exercise
- Eating too many dairy products
- Pain from hemorrhoids
- Overuse of laxatives or stool softeners which weakens the bowel muscle over time
- Neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis
- Overuse of antacid medicines that contain calcium or aluminum
- Medication, especially strong pain medication, narcotics, iron pills, and pre-natal vitamins
- Anorexia/bulimia/anxiety disorders
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Certain types of cancers
With a range of causes as wide as this (and including many hundreds of more possible causes), it’s no wonder people visit their doctors millions of times a year for concerns about constipation.
What Are the Symptoms of Constipation?
The most common symptoms of constipation are: infrequent bowel movements, difficulty having bowel movements, swollen abdomen and abdominal pain, and vomiting. If you have two or more of these symptoms, you’re probably constipated.
Treatment for Constipation
Most constipation cases will respond quickly to the most conservative of treatment plans–simple changes in the diet or lifestyle of the patient.
Some simple dietary changes to keep you from being constipated are to eat the recommended daily amount of fiber (20 to 35 grams), drinking as much water or sugar-free juice that you can every day, and avoiding foods that don’t have fiber, junk foods like ice cream, candy, and processed foods.
Some lifestyle changes that can affect constipation are adding an exercise regimen, taking your time to have bowel movements, and even quitting smoking.
If lifestyle changes and changing your diet don’t help, your doctor may prescribe laxatives.
What Are Laxatives?
There are four basic types of laxatives used by doctors–bulk-forming, stimulant, lubricant and saline.
Bulk-forming laxatives do just what their name describes. These laxatives, like Metamucil and Citrucel, simply increase the volume of feces, making them softer and easier to move through the body.
So called Stimulant laxatives, like Ex-Lax, Dulcolax, etc, stimulate the intestinal wall to contract, helping a person have a bowel movement.
Lubricant laxatives, like using mineral oil orally, softens the stool so it is easier to pass.
The final category, Saline laxatives, including Milk of Magnesia, increase the concentration of salts within the feces, leading to easier bowel movements.
There are other constipation treatments besides laxatives. Some doctors recommend a program of “bowel retraining” for patients who have trouble going to the bathroom regularly. Still other doctors prefer to use rectal suppositories to help lubricate the intestinal walls.
If you believe you have chronic constipation, talk to your doctor about which treatment plan is best for your situation.
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