Constipation is a common digestive issue characterized by having hard, dry bowel movements or passing stool fewer than three times a week (Healthline).
Although occasional constipation is normal and experienced by most people, chronic constipation can interfere with daily tasks and cause excessive straining during bowel movements (Mayo Clinic).
Various factors can contribute to constipation, such as diet, medications, pregnancy, and an individual’s lifestyle choices.
People suffering from constipation often experience symptoms like stomach aches, cramps, bloating, and nausea (Cleveland Clinic). Identifying the causes and utilizing appropriate remedies to relieve constipation effectively and prevent potential complications is essential.
Causes of Constipation
Diet and Lifestyle Factors
Poor diet and an inactive lifestyle are common causes of constipation. Lack of fiber in fruits, vegetables, and cereals can lead to harder and less frequent bowel movements (NHS). Not drinking enough fluids can also contribute to constipation, as the colon absorbs too much water, resulting in hard, dry stools (Johns Hopkins Medicine). Additionally, insufficient physical activity may cause the digestive system to slow down.
Certain medical conditions can lead to constipation. For example, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis may disrupt the normal functioning of the colon. Hormonal imbalances, such as hypothyroidism, can also slow the digestive system, resulting in constipation.
Some medications can cause constipation as a side effect. Common culprits include opioid painkillers, antacids containing calcium or aluminum, certain antidepressants, and some blood pressure medications. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional if constipation occurs due to taking medication.
Symptoms and Complications
Constipation is a medical condition in which an individual experiences difficulty in having bowel movements. Some common constipation symptoms include:
- Having fewer than three bowel movements a week [source]
- Dry, hard, and/or lumpy stools
- Difficulty or pain while passing stools
- Feeling bloated or nauseous
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Feeling that the bowels haven’t been completely emptied after a movement [source]
While short-term constipation typically doesn’t cause complications and can often be treated with self-care, chronic constipation can sometimes lead to more serious issues. Some potential complications of chronic constipation are:
- Swollen veins in the anus (hemorrhoids) – These can result from straining during bowel movements, causing swelling in the veins in and around the anus [source]
- Torn skin in the anus (anal fissure) – Large or hard stools can cause tiny tears in the anus
- Fecal impaction – This occurs when stool becomes lodged in the rectum and cannot be expelled [source]
- Abdominal pain, fever, and vomiting in severe cases – These symptoms could indicate a more serious condition and medical attention should be sought if they occur alongside constipation [source]
Diagnosis and Tests
A physical examination is usually the first step in diagnosing constipation. During this exam, your doctor may conduct a digital rectal exam (DRE) to evaluate your rectum and anal sphincter muscles and check for abnormalities or masses at Stanford Health Care.
Imaging tests can help determine the cause of constipation, especially if there is an obstruction or other issue with the gastrointestinal tract. Some common imaging tests used to diagnose constipation include:
- Radiopaque marker study: This test uses small markers that the patient swallows, which can be seen on an X-ray. The movement of these markers through the bowel can help identify any blockages or dysfunctions of the colon about Constipation.
- X-ray: A plain X-ray of the abdomen can provide information on the amount of fecal matter in the colon and whether there is a blockage Mayo Clinic.
In some cases where constipation is suspected of having an underlying cause, laboratory tests can help diagnose any conditions that may contribute to constipation. Some of the possible tests include:
- Blood tests can help identify abnormalities in electrolyte levels, thyroid function, or other factors affecting bowel function Mayo Clinic.
- Sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy: These procedures allow the doctor to examine the rectum and colon for abnormalities or issues, such as polyps, inflammation, or cancer. Mayo Clinic.
Changing your lifestyle is one of the most effective ways to treat constipation. Increasing your dietary fiber intake to 25 to 30 grams daily may improve symptoms of constipation. Staying hydrated and engaging in regular physical activity can help promote bowel movements.
Several over-the-counter (OTC) remedies can help alleviate constipation. These include laxatives, fiber supplements, and stool softeners. Osmotic laxatives, such as polyethylene glycol or PEG, work by drawing water into the colon and can be effective for occasional use (source).
If lifestyle changes and OTC remedies are insufficient, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat constipation. Always consult a healthcare professional before starting any new medication, and follow their proper use and dosage guidance.
Some people may find relief from constipation through alternative therapies, such as biofeedback or acupuncture. While there is limited scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of these treatments, it is important to discuss any alternative therapies with your healthcare provider before trying them.
Preventing constipation starts with a healthy diet. Including fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can improve gut function and prevent constipation (Hopkins Medicine). Some particularly helpful foods include:
- Whole grain bread
Limiting highly refined and processed foods is essential, as they can contribute to constipation (UCSF Health).
Regular exercise can also help prevent constipation by promoting smooth muscle contractions in the intestines and stimulating bowel movements. Weight-bearing exercises are particularly beneficial (UCSF Health). Engaging in activities such as walking, jogging, or swimming for at least 30 minutes a day can positively impact bowel health.
Drinking adequate amounts of water is essential for preventing constipation. Consuming six to eight glasses of water daily is recommended to maintain proper hydration and bowel function (WebMD). Drinking water or other hydrating fluids like herbal tea or fruit-infused water can help soften stool and make it easier to pass.