Constipation is often something we don’t want to discuss. It can be miserable with bloating, stomach pain, and pressure. Many different things lead to constipation ranging from health conditions to low dietary intake of fiber. Over 42 million people in the United States suffer from constipation and over 2 million Americans need to use some form of laxative or stool softener for relief. This article gives you helpful information on what causes constipation and tips to relieve it.
What Is Constipation?
Constipation is when you have less than 3 bowel movements per week and stools are hard to pass. Normally people can have anywhere from 2 to 3 bowel movements in a single day or only 2 to 3 every week.
For the most part, constipation is a temporary condition and nothing to worry about. It is most common in:
Those using pain medications (slow down bowels)
Low-income individuals (unable to afford fresh fruits and vegetables)
Those using anti-depressants
Patients who are bedridden
Symptoms of Constipation
The symptoms of constipation are:
Less than three bowel movements in a week
Needing to strain in order to pass stool
Blocked feeling in the rectum
Needing to manually remove the stool from your rectum
Abdominal bloating and pressure
Grunting in children without passing stool
If you suffer from any of the above symptoms for longer than three months, you may have chronic constipation.
Causes of Constipation
The causes of constipation include many different factors. Anything that causes loss of water or slows down the bowel as it traverses the intestinal tract can cause you to become constipated. The only time you need to worry is if your bowel changes are sudden or accompanied by bloody stools. Then you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
The most common causes of constipation include:
Low dietary fiber intake
Irritable bowel syndrome
Pregnancy or post-partum
Change of routines
Withholding stool (usually children)
Medications (narcotics, iron supplements, anti-depressants, antacids)
Nerve dysfunction (spina bifida, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis)
Less commonly, constipation can be caused by cancer in the colon.
If you have the above symptoms for three or more weeks, you should check with your doctor. Let him/her know about any medications you are taking, health conditions, and your dietary habits. Often, this will be enough to uncover the cause of your constipation. If there is no explanation, the doctor may order some of the following tests:
Abdominal X-Ray. This can check for constipation and any blockages in the bowel.
Sigmoidoscopy. This test uses a lighted scope to see the inside of the lower colon and rectum.
Colonoscopy. This test uses a lighted scope to see the inside of the entire colon.
Anorectal Manometry. This checks to see how the anal sphincter is working. It uses a small tube and balloon to measure how the muscles work to move the bowels through the anus.
Colonic Transit Study. The doctor will have you ingest radiographic material and then do x-rays over the course of a few days to see the movement of food in your colon.
Defecography. You will have barium paste inserted into the rectum. The doctor will do an x-ray and then have you pass the barium like a bowel movement. This can check the muscles in your colon and rectum.
Constipation Treatment and Prevention
Constipation is treated with the following:
Dietary Changes. You will need to add more fiber to help bulk up the stool. Try to add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your diet. It takes about 14 grams of fiber daily to keep the bowels working properly. Make sure you add fiber slowly to prevent gas and cramping.
Increase Fluid Intake. Try to drink more than the usual 6 to 8 glasses of fluids daily. Go for 10 to 12 glasses of non-caffeinated fluids. Caffeine can be more dehydrating. Drink lots of water, herbal tea, fruit juices, and sports drinks.
Get Moving. Getting more exercise can get the bowels moving. Exercise a little every day. Walking and swimming are good and easy forms of exercise.
Go When you Feel the Urge. If you feel the urge to have a bowel movement, go right away. If you hold it then you increase the risk for constipation.
Try Fiber Supplementation. Adding a fiber supplement can help. These are powders that you mix into water or juice and help bulk up the stool.
Try Stool Softeners. Ask your doctor about adding a stool softener. These help bring water into the bowel making stools easier to pass.
Osmotic Laxatives. Talk to your doctor about osmotic laxatives. They can stimulate the bowels to move. These can be in the form of an oral solution or enema.
Always talk to your doctor before using laxatives. They can cause the body to become dependent on them in order to have a bowel movement and should only be used temporarily.
Bowel Training. This method teaches you how to relax your pelvic floor muscles so you can have a bowel movement with ease. The therapist will insert a tube into the rectum to monitor the muscle activity. You will then attempt to squeeze and then relax the muscles. Over time, you can retrain them to relax at will.
Surgery. Your doctor may opt to send you for surgical intervention. These surgeries can repair things like strictures that hold up the stool, anal fissures, and rectoceles (herniation of the rectum).
Alternative Medicine For Constipation
Check with your doctor, but there are some natural and alternative remedies that have shown to be helpful for constipation. These include:
Aloe Vera. Aloe vera has a laxative effect when taken as a drink made from the aloe leaf. This has the side effect of severe cramping and is not recommended.
Flaxseed This is a safe form of soluble fiber and works well when taken with liquids or sprinkled on cereal.
Senna Senna is an over-the-counter laxative that causes the bowel muscles to contract. There may be some abdominal pain and cramping with use.
Keep in mind that herbal remedies may interact with other medications and have side effects.
Bibliography of Constipation
Clearinghouse, N. D. (2012, October). Constipation. Retrieved from Cleveland Clinic: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_constipation
Mayo Clinic. (2013, August 31). Mayo Clinic: Symptoms of Constiption. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/constipation/basics/symptoms/con-20032773
National Library of Medicine. (1989, January). PubMed: Epidimology of Constipation in the United States. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2910654
National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Health. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine:
University of Maryland. (2013, May 7). Constipation. Retrieved from University of Maryland: https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/constipation