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Chronic Constipation: Facts vs. Myths

Learn how to relieve chronic constipation.
By
WebMD Feature

Constipation, the most common digestive complaint in the U.S. population, can make life miserable. Not only does constipation make you feel bloated, headachy, and irritable, but relieving constipation -- especially long-term or chronic constipation -- is time consuming and expensive. Each year in the U.S., chronic constipation leads to around 2.5 million doctor visits -- and medication costs of many hundreds of millions of dollars.

Chronic Constipation: What Is It?

The definition of chronic constipation varies among different people. For some people, chronic constipation means infrequent bowel movements for weeks at a time. To others, chronic constipation means straining or having difficulty passing stools. For instance, many describe chronic constipation as feeling like you need to have a bowel movement, but no matter how long you sit, it just won't happen. With chronic constipation, you may have hard or formed stools, small stools, or a combination of infrequent hard, formed or small stools.

Generally, the definition of chronic constipation is a stool frequency of less than three per week that lasts several months. Still, experts believe that many who think they suffer from chronic constipation may actually underestimate the frequency of their bowel habits, so this definition may not be accurate.

Chronic Constipation: What's Normal? What's Not?

If you or a loved one has chronic constipation, much of the anxiety and distress may result from a lack of knowledge about this problem. Not only are there magnified fears about what might be causing the problem, the discomfort of chronic constipation itself can be debilitating. Constipation may slow your performance at work and even cause you to miss recreational activities. That's why it's important to know the facts about chronic constipation and talk to your doctor about your personal situation.

Let's look at some chronic constipation myths and then identify the truths:

Chronic Constipation Myth: If you don't have one bowel movement a day, it's abnormal.

The Truth: Less than 50% of people have one bowel movement a day.

Chronic Constipation Myth: Fewer than five or six bowel movements a week is considered to be chronic constipation.

The Truth: 95% of adults have bowel movements between three and 21 times per week. The entire range -- even just three bowel movements a week -- is normal.

Chronic Constipation Myth: Toxins accumulate in the intestine when bowel movements are infrequent.

The Truth: Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that "toxins" accumulate when bowel movements are infrequent or that constipation leads to disease such as cancer. However, if you are still constipated after trying fiber, laxatives, or milk of magnesia, it is time to consult a doctor for an evaluation.

Chronic Constipation Myth: The number of bowel movements increases with age.

The Truth: Actually, the number of bowel movements decreases with age.

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