Constipation Awareness Month
It’s a topic that most of us would rather avoid, but our bathroom habits can be more than just annoying. They can be a sign that something more serious is going on. Even when there isn’t cause for concern, many people still suffer discomfort when they don’t have to be uncomfortable. With December being dedicated to constipation awareness, we think it’s the perfect time to talk about it.
What is Constipation?
When people have infrequent bowel movements or difficulty emptying their bowels, they are experiencing constipation. It is generally defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week. If the condition persists for several weeks or more, it is considered chronic constipation. Simple lifestyle changes typically relieve constipation. In some cases, further treatment or tests may be required to determine and address the underlying cause.
Causes of Constipation
Difficult or infrequent bowel movements are caused by stool moving too slowly through the digestive tract, resulting in hard stool that is not easily passed. Acute constipation is often a result of dehydration, lack of fiber, changes in diet or other lifestyle factors. However, chronic constipation may be caused by potentially serious conditions.
Chronic constipation can have many causes, including:
- Blockage in the intestine or rectum
- Narrowing of the intestines (bowel stricture)
- Colon and rectal nerve problems
- Anal fissures
- Herniation in the vaginal wall (rectocele)
- Pelvic muscle problems
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Hormone imbalances that affect fluid balance caused by conditions like diabetes, thyroid disease or being pregnant
- Neurological conditions, such as stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease
- Abdominal, colon or rectal cancer
- Psychological problems
- Certain medications
Symptoms of Constipation
The signs and symptoms of constipation are easy to recognize. They include:
- Fewer than three bowel movements per week
- Hard and dry or lumpy stools
- Straining to pass stool
- Feeling of incomplete bowel movement
- Feeling of a blockage in your bowel
When to See a Doctor for Constipation
It is important to address chronic constipation, as it may be a symptom of a serious underlying condition. Constipation left untreated can also lead to other complications, including hemorrhoids, anal fissures, impacted bowel or rectal prolapse.
If you experience ongoing constipation despite making dietary and lifestyle changes, you should make an appointment with your general practitioner. You should also see your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhea (alternating with constipation)
- Blood in the stool
- Unintentional weight loss
Your doctor will conduct a physical exam and a digital rectal examination, and may order further diagnostic tests or procedures. These may include blood tests, X-ray, colonoscopy, examination of the rectum and colon (sigmoidoscopy), anal sphincter muscle function test, a colonic transit study or MRI scans.
Prevention and Treatment
Lifestyle and diet changes are often successful in both the prevention and treatment of constipation. They include:
- Drinking adequate amounts of water to stay hydrated
- Eating plenty of fiber
- Reducing potentially constipation-causing foods, such as meat, dairy, processed foods, alcohol and caffeine
- Getting regular exercise
- Managing stress or anxiety
- Not delaying or ignoring the urge to go
If these changes are not effective, your doctor may recommend medication or surgery, depending on the underlying cause of your constipation.
GastroIntestinal Specialists, A.M.C., treat multiple conditions and diseases of the GI tract. Our Board-Certified physicians have over 150 years of combined experience in providing quality care you can trust. To schedule an appointment, call (318) 631-9121 or click here.