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The Basics of Constipation

Constipation is one of those topics few like to talk about. If you've suffered from this problem, though, you know it can be both painful and frustrating.

Almost everyone gets constipated at some time during his or her life. It affects approximately 2% of the population in the U.S. Women and the elderly are more commonly affected. Though not usually serious, constipation can be a concern.

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What Is Constipation?

Constipation occurs when bowel movements become difficult or less frequent. The normal length of time between bowel movements ranges widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements three times a day; others, only one or two times a week. Going longer than three days without a bowel movement is too long. After three days, the stool or feces become harder and more difficult to pass.

You are considered constipated if you have two or more of the following for at least 3 months:

  • Straining during a bowel movement more than 25% of the time
  • Hard stools more than 25% of the time
  • Incomplete evacuation more than 25% of the time
  • Two or fewer bowel movements in a week

What Causes Constipation?

Constipation is usually caused by a disorder of bowel function rather than a structural problem. Common causes of constipation include:

In some cases, lack of good nerve and muscle function in the bowel may also be a cause of constipation.

What Are the Symptoms of Constipation?

Symptoms of constipation can include:

  • Infrequent bowel movements or difficulty having bowel movements (straining)
  • Hard or small stools
  • Sense of incomplete bowel movement
  • Swollen abdomen or abdominal pain
  • Pain
  • Vomiting

There may also be occasional diarrhea resulting from hard stool obstructing the colon.

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