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The Basics of Constipation

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How Is Constipation Diagnosed?

Most people do not need extensive testing to diagnose constipation. Only a small number of patients with constipation have a more serious medical problem. If you have constipation for more than two weeks, you should see a doctor so he or she can determine the source of your problem and treat it. If constipation is caused by colon cancer, early detection and treatment is very important.

Tests your doctor may perform to diagnose the cause of your constipation include:

  • Blood tests if a hormonal imbalance is suspected
  • Barium studies to look for obstruction of the colon
  • Colonoscopy to look for obstruction of the colon

The vast majority of patients with constipation do not have any obvious illness to explain their symptoms and suffer from one of two problems:

  • Colonic inertia. A condition in which the colon contracts poorly and retains stool
  • Obstructed defecation. A condition in which the person excessively strains to expel stool from the rectum

How Can I Prevent Constipation?

There are several things you can do to prevent constipation. Among them:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fiber. Good sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereal (especially bran). Fiber and water help the colon pass stool.
  • Drink 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of water and other fluids a day (unless fluid restricted for another medical condition). Liquids that contain caffeine, such as coffee and soft drinks, seem to have a dehydrating effect and may need to be avoided until your bowel habits return to normal. Some people may need to avoid milk, as dairy products may be constipating for them.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Move your bowels when you feel the urge.

What Should I Do If I Am Constipated?

If you are constipated, try the following:

  • Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day (unless fluid restricted).
  • Try warm liquids, especially in the morning.
  • Add fruits and vegetables to your diet.
  • Eat prunes and/or bran cereal.
  • If needed, use a very mild stool softener or laxative (such as Peri-Colace or Milk of Magnesia). Do not use laxatives for more than two weeks without calling your doctor, as laxative overuse can aggravate your symptoms.
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