June 17 2006 Geriatrics Newsletter
Constipation and its Causes
Constipation is a very common, and quite annoying condition. Fortunately, its cause is usually treatable.
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Constipation and its Causes
Constipation is a very common problem and its incidence increases as we age. While it is unusual for constipation to be due to a serious underlying medical condition, it can be quite uncomfortable. In rare instances, constipation may be due to an obstruction in the colon or other potentially serious problems. Fortunately, this is the exception and not the rule. Many cases of constipation are simply the result of not drinking enough water and not eating enough fiber-rich food. What goes in must come out. Drinking plenty of water helps constipation by supplying lots of water to the stools to soften them, while dietary fiber not only adds bulk to the stool it actually absorbs water to help make the stools softer.
Which foods are rich in fiber?
Grains (especially whole grains), fruits, and vegetables are the foods where you will find a lot of fiber. Dried beans, such as pinto beans and black-eyed peas, have a very high fiber content. Some cereals are also very high in fiber, but make sure you read the labels since many cereals lack any significant fiber content.
What are common symptoms of constipation?
Just because you do not have a bowel movement every day does not mean you have constipation. Not everyone has a daily bowel movement, and that is okay. Some people normally have only 2 – 3 bowel movements a week. However, if for the past 20 or 30 years your norm was to have a bowel movement close to every day and all of a sudden you go several days at a time without moving your bowels, you should discuss this with your doctor so she can determine whether there is some underlying illness that is causing you to be constipated.
Some people who are constipated complain of a feeling of fullness in the rectal area, while others experience gas and bloating. Abdominal cramps and nausea can also result when you are unable to evacuate your colon.
What are other common causes of constipation?
Some medications notoriously cause constipation, such as Verapamil (a common blood pressure medication), antihistamines, diuretics, and narcotic-strength pain relievers. However, the list of drugs that have the potential to cause constipation is very long. When in doubt, ask your pharmacist if your medications are known to cause constipation. You can also research your medication yourself by going to PDR.net.
Some medical conditions, such as diabetes and hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland), can lead to constipation.
Not getting enough physical activity can cause constipation - yet another good reason exercise regularly.
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A. Maria Hester, M.D., Geriatrics Editor
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