What is Constipation?

Being constipated means your bowel movements are difficult or happen less often than normal. Almost everyone has it at some point in life, and it's usually not serious. Still, you'll feel much better when your system is back on track. 

The normal length of time between bowel movements varies widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements three times a day. Others have them only once or twice a week.

Going longer than three or more days without one is usually too long. After three days, the stool or feces become harder and tougher to pass.

 

What Are the Symptoms?

You may have:

  • Few bowel movements
  • Trouble having a bowel movement (straining)
  • Hard or small stools
  • A sense that everything didn’t come out
  • Swollen abdomen or abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

 

Why Does It Happen?

Some causes of constipation include:

  • Antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
  • Changes in your usual diet or activities
  • Colon cancer
  • Eating a lot of dairy products.
  • Eating disorders
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis
  • Not being active
  • Not enough water or fiber in your diet
  • Overuse of laxatives (Over time, this weakens the bowel muscles)
  • Pregnancy
  • Problems with the nerves and muscles in the digestive system
  • Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement, which some people do because of hemorrhoids
  • Some medications (especially strong pain drugs such as narcotics, antidepressants, or iron pills)
  •  Stress
  • Under active thyroid (hypothyroidism)

 

How Do Doctors Diagnose It?

If you have trouble with your bowel movements for more than two weeks, you should see your doctor. He or she may ask for these tests to find the cause of your constipation:

  • Blood tests to check on hormone levels 
  • Barium studies to look for any blockages in your colon. For this test, you'll down a special drink and then get an X-ray.
  • Colonoscopy or other tests to look for blockages in your colon

 

What Should I Do If I Am Constipated?

Try these steps:

  • Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day (unless your doctor told you to limit fluids for another health reason).
  • Try warm liquids, especially in the morning.
  • Add fruits and vegetables to your diet.
  • Eat prunes and bran cereal.
  • If needed, use a very mild over-the-counter stool softener like docusate (Peri-Colace) or a laxative like magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia). Do not use laxatives for more than two weeks without calling your doctor. Laxative overuse can worsen your symptoms.

 

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When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor right away if you have sudden constipation with abdominal pain or cramping and you are not able to pass any gas or stool.

Also, call your doctor if:

  • Constipation is a new problem for you
  • You have blood in your stool
  • You are losing weight even though you are not dieting
  • You have severe pain with bowel movements
  • Your constipation has lasted more than two weeks
  • You have pencil-thin stools

 

Can I Prevent Constipation?

In many cases, you can. These things help:

  • 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).
  • Drink 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of water and other fluids a day (unless your doctor has you on a fluid-restricted diet). Fiber and water work together to keep you regular.
  • Avoid caffeine. It can be dehydrating.
  • Check on milk. Some people may need to avoid it because dairy products may be constipating for them.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge.

 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 27, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

National Institutes of Health.

American Academy of Family Physicians.

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