Constipated? Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment





Am I Constipated?
When Should I See a Doctor?
What Causes Constipation?
How Is It Treated?

Guide To Bowel Problems

Bowel Disorders
Abdominal Problems

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Am I Constipated?

How frequently you have a bowel movement is not necessarily a key to good health. Contrary to popular belief, healthy people have widely different bowel movements: some as frequently as three times a day, others as little as three times a week. Constipation is usually defined as having difficulty in or not passing stools less than 3 times a week. If you are constipated, you may also suffer some stomach pains. Changes in bowel patterns which cannot be alleviated with the occasional use of mild laxatives may however, require medical attention. Bouts of constipation are usually quite harmless and typically poor diet, stress, certain medications or lack of exercise is the cause. Occasionally however, constipation may indicate an underlying disorder such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and diverticular disease.

When Should I See a Doctor?

If you have recently developed constipation which has lasted longer than 2 weeks, you should visit your doctor. This is especially important if it occurs after the age of 50 or if there is blood in the stool. Your doctor will be able to rule out certain conditions by a physical examination (checking the rectum by inserting a gloved finger) and basing opinions on your symptoms. You may be asked to give a stool sample so that it can be tested for blood (Fecal Occult Blood Test, FOBT). If a cause is not found, a diagnostic colonoscopy test may be carried out in a clinic or hospital. Occasionally a substitute procedure, called a virtual colonoscopy, using computer images and serial X-rays can be performed. This is less expensive than the conventional procedure. Alternatively a doctor may assess movement of the intestine by testing how long it takes medical devices called radiopaque markers to travel from the mouth to the anus (known as measuring colon transit time). See also, reasons for seeing a doctor for more general advice.

What Causes Constipation?

Constipation is twice as common in women as men, the reasons are not known. Constipation is caused by weakened muscle contractions in the colon, which slows the movement of waste to the rectum and anus. Most bouts of constipation are linked to lifestyle issues such as poor diet, lack of exercise, over-reliance on laxatives and resisting the urge to defecate. It can also be caused by taking certain medications including codeine and oral contraceptives as well as some drugs used for the treatment of depression, hypertension, heart disease and indigestion. Poor toilet training in infants and decreased mobility of elderly people make constipation more common in these age groups. Additionally women often experience increased bouts of constipation in pregnancy, particularly in the first and third trimesters. And if that’s not enough, women are also more susceptible to it postmenopause. Constipation is also common in women who suffer from thyroid disease.

How Is It Treated?

The average American eats 5 to 14 grams of fiber a day, and according to the American Dietetic Association, this should be 20 to 35 grams. This is partly explained by the popularity of processed foods which are so refined the natural fiber has been removed. The first step in the treatment process is to increase your intake of fiber rich foods such as bran, whole grains, figs, prunes, raisins and nuts. As fiber can cause a bloated stomach, it may be necessary to also use stool softeners or natural laxatives supplements which work by absorbing water in the colon. Ideally increase your water intake at the same time. According to the Verispan database of retail pharmacy prescriptions, nearly 50 percent of all medications prescribed for chronic constipation in 2004 were for the laxative polyethylene glycol. Tegaserod (brand name Zelnorm) was also cited.

Natural Remedies For Constipation

Try to reduce your intake of cheese, white bread and highly processed foods. These tend to 'stick' in the stomach.

Drink more liquids - especially water. This will add bulk to the stool, making it softer and easier to pass. Avoid coffee and other caffeine drinks such as colas, as caffeine can cause dehydration. Alcohol also has the same effect. If you are fond of a coffee or glass of wine, drink 2 glasses of water after to help keep your system hydrated.

Try not to ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. Squatting over the toilet actually helps as it is a more natural position for the colon.

Instead of sinking on the couch and watching TV after dinner, go for a brisk 10-20 minute walk. According to Chinese medicine the best time of the day to walk is between 5am and 7am in the morning. In practice, any time of the day is good for loosening those bowel muscles. Swimming is also an excellent help.

Using laxatives for a short time can be helpful, but overuse can lead to dependence. Choose a mild laxative such as a mineral oil (eg Harley's M-O) and non-absorbing sugars such as sorbitol, polyethylene glycol and lactulose. If these do not work, you might consider a slightly harsher laxative, which works by irritating the lining of the intestine to contract. These include milk of magnesia, magnesium citrate, senna and castor oil.

Add Flaxseeds to cereals and salads. Flaxseeds are a blend of soluble and insoluble fiber and add bulk to a stool encouraging it to move gently through the bowel.

Include low fat yogurts in your diet, they contain healthy bacteria which can help prevent constipation.

In the elderly, a lack of folic acid has sometimes been linked with constipation.

Those with severe constipation might consider colonic irrigation which can bring huge relief.

  Related Articles on Constipation

For more conditions related to bowel movements, see the following:

The dangers of stress on the body.
Recommended health screenings: for every woman.
The female body and the human body.

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