Constipation is one of the most frequent gastrointestinal complaints in the U.S. Each year, over 2.5 million patients seek medical attention for constipation-related complaints. But what is constipation and how can you recognize the symptoms?
The American College of Gastroenterology defines constipation as “unsatisfactory defecation with either infrequent stools, difficult stool passage or both.” Constipation most often occurs due to changes in diet or routine, or due to inadequate intake of water or fiber. These factors slow down the digestive activities of the intestine. When stool moves slowly through the colon, too much water is absorbed from the stool and it becomes hard and dry, causing difficulty with defecation.
Chronic constipation may be due to a poor diet, dehydration, certain medications (such as antidepressants or prescription pain medications), stress, or the pressure of other activities that force an individual to delay using the bathroom despite a physical urge to do so.
Though a common misconception, the frequency of an individual’s bowel movements is not necessarily a positive indicator of constipation. The frequency or time between bowel movements ranges widely from person to person. Some healthy people have bowel movements several times a day while others only one to two times a week. Being constipated means an individual’s bowel movements require too much straining, involve a passage of small hard stools or leave the person with a sense that they have not completely emptied their bowels.
The most common indicators of constipation are:
- Difficult and painful bowel movements
- Bowel movements fewer than three times a week
- Feeling bloated or uncomfortable
- Feeling sluggish
- Abdominal pain
Constipation typically responds well to changes in diet, routine, or medication. Your doctor may recommend the use of laxatives or stool softeners if changes in diet are insufficient. Most laxatives are safe for long-term use when used properly. Newer medications, which increase secretion of fluids into the intestine, are available only by prescription. They should be considered if constipation does not respond well to over-the-counter laxatives.
If a patient has been suffering from constipation for a prolonged period resulting in impacted stools, a tap water enemas may be required. Warm water is gently instilled into the rectum and sigmoid colon. When the water is emptied, the impacted stool is passed with it, bringing instant relief to the patient.
For most healthy individuals, a combination of an adequate intake of fluids, regular physical exercise, and a high-fiber diet may prevent constipation. However, if you are experiencing severe pain, blood in your stools, or constipation that lasts longer than three weeks, contact your healthcare provider right away.
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