Just about everyone has trouble going to the bathroom at some point. If you're not having bowel movements as often as you used to, usually it's no cause for worry. Often, constipation will go away on its own within a few days or get better after you use laxatives or another constipation treatment.
But what if constipation doesn't go away and becomes a daily problem? When should you stop treating it yourself and call a doctor for help?
By Janis Graham
Stuffing? Check. Stiff drinks? Check. Stress? Check. 'Tis the season -- for
stomachaches. "The holidays create a perfect storm for stomach problems because
of all the eating, traveling, and partying," says Roger D. Mitty, M.D., chief
of gastroenterology at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston. And
women are especially vulnerable, since some gastrointestinal ills occur up to
six times more often in women than in men. What's more, a recent survey found
Typically, you become constipated when there either isn't enough water in your stool to soften and move it through your intestines, or the muscle contractions in your intestines are too slow to push the stool through and out of your body.
The most common causes of constipation are pretty easy to remedy, including:
Too little fiber in your diet -- eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
A lack of fluids -- drink more water and less liquids that contain caffeine (which can be constipating), such as soda and coffee
Too little exercise -- increase the amount of physical activity you do each day
Ignoring the urge to go to the bathroom -- schedule a specific time to go each day
The use of certain medicines, such as antacids, blood pressure medicines, pain relievers, antidepressants, iron supplements, and anticonvulsants; talk to your doctor about switching to a different medicine.
Sometimes, constipation is a sign of a disease or physical problem in the gastrointestinal tract. Conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, stroke, diabetes, thyroid disease, and lupus can all make you constipated. Irritable bowel syndrome is a collection of gastrointestinal symptoms that includes constipation.
A less common possibility is that you have a physical problem in your intestines, such as a blockage or tumor, that's preventing the stool from passing through.
When constipation lingers for three weeks or more, get a check-up just to make sure a medical condition isn't causing the problem. Also see your doctor if:
You've never been constipated before now
You have stomach pain
You've noticed blood in your stools
You're losing weight without trying
Don’t let constipation go unchecked for too long. When untreated, constipation can lead to unpleasant complications such as hemorrhoids and rectal prolapse, a condition in which part of the intestine pushes out through the anus from too much straining.
What Happens During an Exam?
Your doctor will probably ask for a medical history. He or she will ask questions about your constipation, including:
When your constipation started
How often you normally have bowel movements
The consistency of your stools and whether you have to strain during bowel movements
Whether you've noticed blood in your stools
What other constipation symptoms you're experiencing (abdominal pain, vomiting, unexplained weight loss)
What, if anything, seems to relieve your constipation or make it worse
Your eating habits
Your family and personal history of colon cancer or digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome