Constipation is a condition in which a person's bowel movements become uncomfortable, harder, or less frequent than usual.
The role of the digestive system is to extract nutrients from the food a person eats and prepare the leftover material for disposal. Food passes through at least 20 feet of small intestine before being stored temporarily in the colon, or large intestine, where water is removed. Finally, this fecal residue is excreted as a bowel movement.
The frequency of bowel movements considered normal varies from person to person. "Normal" may range from movements 3 times a day to 3 times a week.
Constipation is not an illness, but it may be a symptom of another problem.
A person who is constipated may have: infrequent bowel movementshard stoolsdifficulty passing stoolpain passing stoola feeling that the bowel is not completely emptya bloated feeling after eatingheadaches
This condition can be caused by: a recent change in dietdietary factors, such as not drinking enough fluids, eating too much animal protein, or not eating enough fiber-rich foodsa decrease in physical activity or too little physical activityillnessiron tabletscertain drugs, such as those for pain, depression, and high blood pressurerapid weight lossa person ignoring the feeling of needing to pass stoolhormone changes, such as those in pregnancyhigh blood calciumspecific diseases, such as colon cancer or an underactive thyroiddepression, tension, or anxiety
Acute constipation may be caused by a serious problem, such as a blockage or poor blood supply to the large intestine, or nerve and spinal cord injury.
The best way for a person to prevent this condition is to: exercise regularlyeat a healthy, high-fiber diet that includes whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruitsregularly practice relaxation that also relaxes the boweldrink plenty of water, especially in hot weatherlimit foods that have little or no fiber, such as ice cream, meat, chips, and pre-packaged frozen dinnerslimit caffeine, alcohol, and sodas, as they tend to dry out the stoollisten to his or her body and allow enough time to have a bowel movementcheck if any drugs he or she is taking cause constipation
Constipation affects almost everyone at one time or another. Most people do not need extensive testing because the condition usually resolves on its own. But sometimes constipation is a symptom of a more serious problem.
Anyone with constipation that lasts for more than 2 weeks should see a doctor so that the source of the problem can be found. The doctor may do blood tests and examine the colon.
The longer the fecal residue sits in the colon, the harder the stool becomes and the more difficult it is to pass. This also means that the colon is exposed to the chemicals in these waste products for a longer time.
The long-term effects of chronic constipation can include: swelling of the bowel, sometimes with pain in the bellycolon cancerdiverticulosis and diverticulitis
There are no risks to others.
To treat this condition, a person needs to find the cause and fix it. For instance, if it is caused by lack of exercise, the person needs to exercise more.
If the body is not getting enough fluids, he or she needs to drink more. If the feces are hard, a doctor may recommend a mild stool softener, such as docusate (i.e., Colace), fiber supplements (usually containing psyllium), medicines that increase stool bulk (i.e., Citrucel, Metamucil, MiraLax), lactulose, enemas (which should be the last choice) to prevent this problem, or a laxative.
Laxatives, such as bisacodyl (i.e., Dulcolax), come in many forms, including liquids, pills, chewing gum, and powder that is mixed in water. If laxatives are used for more than 2 weeks, they can aggravate symptoms.
Many times diet changes work just as well as laxatives. For instance, a diet containing bulk, such as whole grains, vegetable fiber, bran, and water, produces large, soft feces that are easily passed.
A person also may want to try: drinking 2 to 4 extra glasses of water a daydrinking warm liquids, especially in the morningeating more fruits and vegetableseating prunes and/or bran cerealdaily exercise
When a disease is causing constipation, the disease must be treated.
Before taking laxatives, a person should talk to his or her doctor as there can be side effects. For instance, if a person takes laxatives that contain certain chemicals for too long, these laxatives may actually maintain constipation, and weaken the muscles of the bowel.
A person should add fiber to his or her diet a little at a time until the body gets used to it.
Good lifestyle habits allow the digestive system to work efficiently. Eating a fiber-rich diet, drinking plenty of fluids, and exercising regularly go a long way toward preventing constipation.
Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong number of bowel movements. Each person's body finds its own normal number of bowel movements. It depends on a person's age, the foods eaten, and how much he or she exercises. A person should call a doctor if he or she has blood in the stool, is losing weight without dieting, or has severe pain with bowel movements
Merck Manual : Home Edition
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Natural Remedies, Norman Shealy
Take Care of Yourself, Donald Vickery&James Fries
Dr Koop's Self-Care Advisor, Time Life Medical 1996