Constipation Symptoms

By:    Published: March 5, 2012

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Constipation is a relatively common condition that could be caused by a number of factors. Fortunately, it is usually easy to treat and can even be prevented in many cases. However, it’s important to know what signs to watch for to know if you need to see a doctor for your constipation.

Definition

Constipation is a common gastrointestinal problem that occurs when an individual has difficulty passing stools. Sometimes, constipation can be hard to define since the frequency of bowel movements can vary widely from person to person. However, if someone is passing fewer than three stools a week or has hard and dry stools then they are generally considered to be constipated. This constipation is generally temporary and can be easily treated with over-the-counter products and simple lifestyle changes.

Symptoms

It may be difficult to figure out if you have constipation since you may occasionally go a day or two without a bowel movement. However, if you have at least two of the following symptoms for at least three of the past six months, then you probably have constipation:

  • Hard or dry stools
  • Fewer than three bowel movements per week
  • Straining excessively during bowel movements
  • Having a feeling of incomplete evacuation after a bowel movement
  • Having a feeling of rectal blockage
  • Needing to use manual maneuvers to have a bowel movement, such as manipulating your lower abdomen or finger evacuation

Causes And Risk Factors

When bowel movements are normal, waste is moved through the intestines by muscle contractions. However, when there is not enough fluid or fiber in your diet, the contractions slow and the waste does not move quickly enough through the digestive tract. This is what causes the stool to become hard and dry.

There are many factors which may cause constipation, such as:

  • Not drinking enough water
  • Not getting enough fiber in your diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Delaying using the bathroom when you have an urge to have a bowel movement
  • Overuse or misuse of laxatives
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Anal fissures
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Hormonal disturbances
  • Pregnancy, travel and other changes in lifestyle or routine
  • Certain medications, such as diuretics, pain medications and those used for the treatment of depression, high blood pressure or Parkinson’s disease
  • Certain diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, thyroid disease or stroke
  • Injury to the spinal cord which affects the nerves in the intestine
  • Some autoimmune diseases
  • Colorectal cancer

Children may also suffer from specific causes of constipation. In some cases, children avoiding or being afraid of using the toilet can cause this condition. Additionally, some children ignore or forget that they need to attend to their bowel movements. In rare cases, a condition called Hirschsprung’s disease (which involves missing nerve cells in the colon) can be a cause of constipation in children. It is important to note that it is not uncommon for infants who are exclusively breastfed may go a week without a bowel movement.

Older adults, women and children are at a higher risk for constipation. Pregnancy also increases the risk of constipation occurring. In addition, being sedentary or confined to bed increases the risk of this condition. Other risk factors for constipation include not getting enough fiber or liquids in your diet, taking certain medications or undergoing chemotherapy.

Prevention

The best way to prevent constipation is by eating a diet that is high in fiber. Foods like vegetables, beans and whole-grain cereals and breads are good for preventing this condition. Make sure you get about 20 to 35 grams of fiber each day. If you are well below this amount currently, add fiber to your diet slowly over a number of weeks. On the other hand, you should also limit your intake of low-fiber foods, like cheese or ice cream, which can aggravate constipation, and take fiber supplements if necessary.

Other preventative measures include drinking plenty of liquids each day, limiting caffeine intake, exercising regularly and using the bathroom as soon as possible when you have the urge to have a bowel movement. Also, don’t overuse or misuse laxatives since this may lead to intestinal problems.

Treatment

Most cases of constipation can be treated with simple lifestyle changes, including:

  • Making sure you get enough fiber in your diet
  • Drinking plenty of water and other fluids each day
  • Exercising regularly
  • Using the bathroom when you have the urge to have a bowel movement

When these changes aren’t effective, then over-the-counter remedies like fiber supplements, laxatives, stool softeners, osmotic, lubricants and stimulants can be used. However, it’s important not to overuse or misuse these since they may become habit forming or cause intestinal problems.

Though most people can treat their constipation at home, there are some cases where you should see a doctor for constipation. If you have any of the following symptoms with constipation, make an appointment with your doctor:

  • Chronic constipation
  • Constipation that does not go away with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter remedies
  • Rectal pain
  • Thin, pencil-like stools
  • Blood in the stool
  • Constipation alternating with diarrhea
  • Unexplained weight loss

There may be a more serious cause of constipation if these symptoms occur with the condition. In these situations, doctors can often treat the constipation by treating the underlying condition. However, if the constipation is serious or is still not going away, doctors can provide a number of possible treatments, including prescription medications, manual disimpaction, enemas or surgical procedures.

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