Constipation is a medical condition in which a person has infrequent or uncomfortable bowel movements. Technically, constipation is when an individual has less than three bowel movements per week that consist of dry, hard stool. However, how often an individual “goes” varies greatly from person to person. You are not alone if you experience constipation. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, roughly 4 million people nationwide have frequent constipation. Constipation accounts for 2.5 million doctor visits annually and is the most common gastrointestinal complaint.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
Some of the signs and symptoms of constipation include:
- Stomach pain
- Feeling bloated or uncomfortable
- Lumpy, hard, or dry stools
- Straining to pass stool
- Difficult, painful bowel movements
- Feeling as though you cannot fully empty your bowels from the rectum
- Passing fewer than three stools per week
Is my constipation chronic or acute?
It is extremely common to experience constipation occasionally. However, some individuals experience chronic constipation that can interfere with their ability to go about their daily lives.
Constipation may be considered chronic if you've experienced two or more of the constipation symptoms listed above for at least three months. However, chronic constipation is diagnosed by a healthcare professional and should only be treated under the direction of a physician.
What causes constipation?
Stools become hard, dry, and difficult to pass when your colon absorbs too much water out of the stool. This typically happens when it takes too long for food to pass through the gastrointestinal tract.
There are many different factors that can contribute to constipation, including:
- Lack of exercise
- Not eating enough high fiber foods
- Increased stress levels
- Lifestyle changes such as travel, pregnancy, older age, or recent surgery
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
- Certain medications such as opioid pain medications and iron supplements
- Medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and Parkinson’s disease
What treatment options are available?
The treatment of constipation varies and depends on the underlying cause, if it can be identified. Cases of mild, occasional constipation can often be treated at home. Lifestyle changes such as increasing water intake, exercising, and eating high fiber foods are often enough to correct the problem. Examples of high fiber foods include beans, apples, nuts, whole grains, broccoli, and dried fruits.
If lifestyle changes are not enough, there are various medications available over the counter (OTC) to relieve occasional constipation.
Examples of OTC medication options to relieve constipation:
- Stool softeners - draw water into the stool from the gastrointestinal tract, which makes it easier to pass
- Fiber supplements - adds fiber to the stool, which makes the stool softer
- Stimulant laxatives - make the intestines move and contract to cause a bowel movement
- Lubricants - allow the stool to pass through the intestines more easily
- Osmotic laxatives - increase fluid secretions in the gastrointestinal tract and help stimulate a bowel movement
- Enemas and suppositories - give lubrication and stimulation to the bowels and can help soften the stool
You should talk with your physician or local Lewis pharmacist to determine which OTC treatment option is right for you. There are also some prescription-only medications available for the treatment of chronic constipation, if needed.
While constipation is often a condition that is easily treated at home, you should call your healthcare provider if your constipation lasts longer than two weeks, you are unintentionally losing weight, you are experiencing severe pain, or you have blood in your stool.
Mayo Clinic: Constipation
Johns Hopkins Medicine: Constipation
Cleveland Clinic: Constipation https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4059-constipation