Guest Author - Tammy Elizabeth Southin
Over four million Americans experience the discomfort of frequent constipation. Two and a half million doctor’s visits this year will be due to this most common intestinal problem. Americans will spend around $725 million this year on laxatives when they may not need to. Myths about what is ‘regular’ are confusing; many people think they are constipated when it is not the case. This brief overview describes what constipation is and its causes and treatments. Occasionally, constipation can be a sign of a more serious condition. Fortunately, it’s usually a minor inconvenience in our busy lives, and it is easy to treat and prevent.
What is constipation?
In a healthy digestive system, food moves from the stomach, travels through the small intestines and finally into the large intestine or colon. The colon absorbs water from the food to form waste material, known as feces or stool. Muscles in the colon perform contractions that help to push the stool for elimination or a bowel movement. Constipation occurs when there is either too little water in the stool to allow it to move easily, or the colon muscles are too weak to perform effectively. The result is difficulty in having regular bowel movements, often straining to pass hard, small stools.
What is considered regular?
It is a common myth that everyone should have a bowel movement every day. Normal frequency is different from person to person and varies from three times a day to three times a week. What you should be concerned about is a noticeable change in your habits or if you do not empty your bowels at least once a week. Many people believe they are constipated based on the once a day myth and reach for the laxatives. This leads to laxative abuse, creates dependency, and plays havoc with your body’s natural rhythm.
What causes constipation?
Constipation is caused by several factors; the most common being a diet low in fiber and not getting enough water every day. Lack of regular exercise can also contribute to constipation, as can changes in your normal routine. Traveling can disrupt your daily routine and diet, stressing your system. Longer term life changes like pregnancy explain why constipation affects women in greater numbers. Constipation is very common in the elderly who are not getting enough exercise or may be bedridden. Certain medications (see below) can also affect bowel movements, and excessive use of laxatives can weaken your colon muscles and draw too much water from the stool. Laxatives create a vicious cycle in that you need larger and larger doses with continued use to the point where you are unable to move your bowels naturally.
What are the symptoms?
Straining to pass stool and infrequent bowel movements indicate that things are not functioning properly and you may feel as though you have not fully emptied your bowels. You may have gas and excessive flatulence, bloating, indigestion, tenderness or pressure in your abdomen. You may also notice traces of blood on your bathroom tissue, usually due to anal fissures or tears in the skin around the anus.
Are the any complications due to constipation?
Complications arising out of constipation may include hemorrhoids; swollen veins in the anus due to straining to push stool. They differ from the above mentioned anal fissures, when the anal skin tears from passing hard stool. Another complication is a rectal prolapse or irritated intestinal lining that is slightly pushed out through the anus. Mostly common in the elderly and bedridden is a condition known as fecal impaction, or a severe hardening of the stool, and often requires a doctor having to manually break up the stool for relief.
What other conditions might cause constipation?
Constipation is not a disease but a symptom, usually of an unhealthy lifestyle and poor diet. There are times when constipation may be due to something more serious such as a bowel obstruction or possible tumor or benign growth. It can also result from irritable bowel syndrome, an inflammatory bowel disease. Another serious condition is diverticulitis which happens when the intestine becomes blocked and small pockets or diverticulae become infected. In rare cases, constipation can signal colon or rectal cancer. Always check with your doctor if you experience changes in your routine.
Visit the following websites for further information about constipation:
Menopause, Your Doctor, and You