Understanding Constipation

Christina Dodd 

Constipation is a common digestive complaint most often occurring in women and adults over the age of 65. Symptoms of constipation are infrequent bowel movements, usually less than three times per week. Constipation causes hard, smalls stools that may be difficult to pass. Associated symptoms include bloating, gas, and cramping.

Constipation is not an illness, it is merely a symptom of something else. Almost everyone becomes constipated at some point in their lives and it is usually a mild and benign experience. However, it is important to understand the causes and treatment for constipation in order to enjoy good health.

Causes

Constipation begins in the colon, known as the large intestine, where water is absorbed from food and waste matter, or stool, is formed and prepared for excretion. The muscles lining the colon work to move the stool toward the rectum and out of the body. Constipation is a result of slow muscle contractions that cause the stool to move too slowly through the colon, causing excessive water absorption. The result is infrequent bowel movements of hard, dry stool. Constipation is commonly triggered by:

  • Lack of fiber
  • Lack of exercise
  • Lack of fluids
  • Diets high in fats
  • Certain medications, including pain medications, antacids, blood pressure medications, antispasmodics, antidepressants, and diuretics.
  • Dairy products
  • Disease or conditions including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, neurological disorders, metabolic conditions like diabetes or hypothyroidism, and systemic disorders like lupus.
  • Changes in routine caused by aging, pregnancy, smoking cessation, travel, etc.
  • Depression
  • Hormonal fluctuations
  • Overuse of laxatives
  • Ignoring the need to use the bathroom
  • Structural issues in the colon
  • Functional issues in the colon

Diagnosis

Most often, constipation is a mild symptom of a lifestyle imbalance and will go away on its own. However, for persistent constipation, or in the case of acute discomfort or blood in your stool, it is advised to consult with a doctor to identify the underlying causes. Your doctor will examine your medical history, activity levels, eating habits, bowel routines, and weight patterns to determine the best course of action for you. For cases of severe constipation, your doctor may conduct one or all of the following tests:

  • Blood test to rule out hormonal imbalances or other conditions.
  • Barium studies to rule out colonic obstructions.
  • Colonoscopy to discover any polyps or obstructions.

Treatment

Treatment of constipation varies in response to the cause, intensity, and time frame of the episode. Most often, simple changes in diet or lifestyle will have beneficial effects. These include:

  • Adding fiber to your diet. High fiber foods include legumes, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. Replacing low fiber foods like cheese, sweets, and meat with high fiber alternatives will help prevent constipation in the future.
  • Drinking more fluids. Liquids help lubricate your digestive system, allowing for the easier passing of wastes. Warm liquids can be especially effective.
  • Exercise stimulates bowel movements.
  • Never ignoring the urge to use the bathroom.
  • Short-term treatment with laxatives or enemas under the supervision of a medical professional may sometimes be advised. It is important to use these treatments cautiously, as laxatives are especially prone to causing dependence. Laxatives can be obtained through properties in certain foods or in supplements. The different types include fiber supplements, lubricants, stool softeners, hyperosmolar laxatives, saline laxatives, and stimulant laxatives.