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July 26, 2008

Constipation & How To Deal With It

Constipation & How To Deal With It


Constipation is a common digestive system problem in which you have infrequent bowel movements, pass hard stools, or strain during bowel movements.

In terms of frequency, what constitutes constipation for one person may be normal for someone else. That's because the normal frequency of bowel movements varies widely — from three a day to three a week. What's normal for you may not be normal for someone else.

In general, though, you're probably experiencing constipation if you pass hard and dry stools less than three times a week. In some cases, constipation also may make you feel bloated or sluggish or experience discomfort or pain.

Fortunately, a few common-sense lifestyle changes, including getting more exercise, eating high-fiber foods and drinking plenty of water, can go a long way toward preventing or alleviating constipation.


Not having a bowel movement every day doesn't necessarily mean you're constipated. You're likely constipated, however, if you:

* Pass a hard stool fewer than three times a week
* Strain frequently during bowel movements
* Have abdominal bloating or discomfort


Normally, the waste products of digestion are propelled through your intestines by muscle contractions. In the large intestine, most of the water and salt in this mixture are reabsorbed because they're essential for many of your body's functions.

If too much water is absorbed or if the waste moves too slowly, you may become constipated. You may also experience constipation if the muscles you use to move your bowels aren't coordinated. This problem is called pelvic floor dysfunction (anismus) and it causes you to strain with most bowel movements, even soft ones. Stool moves through your colon but gets hung up in the rectum because of a lack of muscle coordination to empty your bowels.

A number of factors can cause an intestinal slowdown, including:

* Inadequate fluid intake
* A low-fiber diet
* Inattention to bowel habits
* Age
* Lack of physical activity
* Pregnancy
* Illness

Many medications, including those used to treat Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure and depression, also can cause constipation. The same is true of many narcotics. And frequent use of laxatives often aggravates and may even eventually cause constipation.

In rare cases, constipation may signal more serious medical conditions, such as colorectal cancer, hormonal disturbances or autoimmune diseases.

Sometimes young children are constipated because they forget to take time to use the toilet. And your toddler might become constipated during toilet training if he or she is afraid or unwilling to use the toilet.

Risk Factors

You're more likely to have problems with constipation if you're an older adult, are sedentary or bedridden, eat a diet that's low in fiber or don't drink enough fluids. You're also at risk if you take certain medications, including sedatives or narcotics, or you're receiving chemotherapy.

If you're pregnant, you may have bouts of constipation because of hormonal changes. Later in your pregnancy, pressure on your intestines from your uterus also can cause constipation.

When to Seek Medical Advice

See your doctor if you experience a recent, unexplained onset of constipation or change in bowel habits, or any of the following signs or symptoms, which might indicate a more serious health condition:

* Bowel movements just once or twice a week, despite corrective changes in diet or exercise
* Intense abdominal pain
* Blood in your stool
* Constipation that alternates with diarrhea
* Rectal pain
* Thin, pencil-like stools
* Unexplained weight loss

Tests and Diagnosis

A diagnosis of constipation generally depends on your medical history and a physical exam. Your doctor will first want to make sure you don't have a blockage in your small intestine or colon (intestinal obstruction), an endocrine condition, such as hypothyroidism, or an electrolyte disturbance, such as excessive calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia). He or she will also want to check your medications in case they may be causing your constipation.

You may undergo these diagnostic procedures:

* Electrolyte. This will be done if your doctor suspects an Electrolyte Imbalance, such as Hypokalemia or Hypercalsemia as the causes of your constipation.
* Stool analysis. In some cases, your doctor may request a stool sample, to be analyzed for the presence of hidden (occult) blood.
* Barium enema. In this test, the lining of your bowel is coated with a contrast dye (barium) so that your rectum, colon and sometimes a part of the small intestine can be clearly seen on an X-ray.
* Sigmoidoscopy. In this procedure, your doctor uses a lighted, flexible tube to examine your sigmoid colon and rectum.
* Colonoscopy. This diagnostic procedure allows your doctor to examine the entire colon with a flexible, camera-equipped tube.
* Anorectal manometry. In this procedure, your doctor inserts a narrow, flexible tube into your anus and rectum and then inflates a small balloon at the tip of the tube. This allows your doctor to measure the coordination of the muscles you use to move your bowel. You may undergo this test if your doctor suspects pelvic floor dysfunction.


Although constipation can be extremely bothersome, it usually isn't serious. If it persists, and especially if straining results, you may develop complications such as hemorrhoids and cracks or tears in your anus called abrasions or fissures.

Very severe or chronic constipation can sometimes cause a fecal impaction, a mass of hardened stool that you can't eliminate by a normal bowel movement. An impaction can be dangerous, and you may need to have it manually removed.

If you use Laxatives Frequently, you may develop Lazy Bowel Syndrome, a condition in which your bowels become dependent on laxatives to function properly. In fact, laxative use can cause a number of problems, including Poor Absorption of Vitamins and Other Nutrients, Damage to Your Intestinal Tract and Worsening Constipation.

Treatments and Drugs

Changes in your lifestyle may be the safest way to manage constipation. To help ease symptoms, try using a fiber supplement, such as Oat Bran, Metamucil, Konsyl or Citrucel. These natural supplements help make stools softer and are safe to use every day. Be sure to drink plenty of water or other fluids every day. Otherwise, fiber supplements can actually make your constipation worse. And add fiber to your diet slowly to avoid problems with gas.

Your doctor may recommend a Stool Softener, such as Mineral Oil or Docusate (Colace, Surfak), to soften fecal matter so that it passes through your intestines more easily. But don't rely on stool softeners on a regular basis because they can cause other problems.

Your doctor may also suggest that you take Milk of Magnesia, which acts as a Mild Laxative. Mineral Oil may interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and can cause a serious form of pneumonia if it's accidentally inhaled (aspirated) into your lungs, so don't take mineral oil just before you lie down.

Other Approaches

If pelvic floor dysfunction is the cause of your constipation, your doctor may suggest biofeedback as a treatment. This technique may help you learn to better coordinate the muscles you use to defecate.

If you're pregnant — and in general — it's a good idea to check with your doctor before using any laxatives other than fiber supplements. Try eating lots of high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It's a good idea to check the content of prepared foods because not all foods claiming to be high in fiber actually are. Drink plenty of fluids and get as much exercise as you can. Swimming and walking are good choices.


To help prevent constipation:

* Eat fiber regularly. Choose lots of high-fiber foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans and whole-grain cereals and breads. Experiment to see if particular fruits or vegetables have a laxative effect for you. Adding fiber to your diet gradually may help reduce gas and bloating.
* Limit problem foods. Foods that are high in fat and sugar and those that tend to be low in fiber content, such as ice cream, cheese and processed foods, may cause or aggravate constipation.
* Drink plenty of liquids. The exact amount of water and other fluids you should drink each day varies and depends on your age, sex, health, activity level and other factors.
* Increase your physical activity. Engage in regular exercise, such as walking, biking or swimming, on most days.
* Heed nature's call. The longer you delay going to the toilet once you feel the urge, the more water that's absorbed from stool and the harder it becomes.
* Try fiber supplements. Over-the-counter products such as Metamucil and Citrucel can help keep stools soft and regular. Check with your doctor about using stool softeners. If you use fiber supplements, be sure to drink plenty of water or other fluids every day. Otherwise, fiber supplements may cause constipation or make constipation worse. Add fiber to your diet slowly to avoid problems with gas.
* Don't rely on stimulant laxatives. These include products such as Correctol and Dulcolax, which cause muscle contractions in the intestines. Habitual use can damage your bowels and make constipation worse. For occasional relief try saline laxatives, such as milk of magnesia. Saline laxatives draw water into the colon to allow stool to pass easier. Keep in mind that long-term use of laxatives can cause dependency. For constipated children, give them plenty of fluids to drink, but avoid giving them laxatives unless your doctor says it's OK.

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