What is constipation?

Constipation is one of the most common digestive disease issues that affects more than 15 percent of the population annually. Constipation is characterized by the inability to have a bowel movement or having fewer than three in a week.

If chronic constipation is left untreated, it can lead to more serious conditions such as anal fissures, fecal impaction and hemorrhoids. Constipation can also indicate you may have a more serious condition that needs to be evaluated by your doctor.

Causes of constipation

Constipation can occur when food that has been digested sits in the colon too long. In this situation, the colon may absorb too much water from the stool, making it hard and dry.

Other causes that contribute to constipation include:

  • Limited physical activity
  • Dehydration
  • Low fiber intake
  • Medications with constipation side effects, such as antidepressants, calcium channel blockers, antacids and iron supplements
  • Medical conditions like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, celiac disease, colon polyps and nerve damage

Risk factors for constipation

Anyone can become constipated, but it is more common in lower income women who are over 65 years old. You are also more likely to suffer from constipation if you are pregnant, recently had a baby or recently had surgery.

Symptoms of constipation

Signs or symptoms that you have constipation include:

  • Inability to have a bowel movement
  • Hard, dry stools
  • Straining to use the bathroom
  • Needing to use a finger to remove stool from the rectum
  • Abdominal pain or bloating
  • Reduced appetite

If you have a number of these symptoms frequently over a period of three months, you may be severely constipated.

Diagnosis of constipation

Your primary care doctor can diagnose constipation during a physical exam. The physician may perform a digital rectal exam or order diagnostic tests such as:

  • Blood test
  • Sigmoidoscopy — exams the lower part of the colon.
  • Colonoscopy — used to examine the colon.
  • Anorectal manometry — measures how well the muscles in the anus work to remove bowel movements.
  • Balloon expulsion test — determines how quickly you can push a balloon filled with water out of the rectum.
  • Colonic transit study — a device is swallowed that is used to look for functional problems in the colon.

Treatment for constipation

Most cases of constipation are not serious and can be reversed with minor diet or lifestyle changes, such as include increasing water and fiber in your diet, exercising regularly and using the bathroom when you feel the urge (do not wait).

If diet or lifestyle changes do not relieve your symptoms, your doctor may recommend taking a laxative to soften the stool, contract the intestines, lubricate the colon or make bowel movements easier.

If diet, lifestyle changes or laxatives are not effective in treating your case of constipation, prescription medications such as Amitiza, Linzess, Cytotec, Col-Probenecid may be prescribed.

When all other treatments have failed, surgically removing part of the colon may be effective in treating constipation.

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