Constipation: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.

What is Constipation?

There are many definitions for constipation; it can be defined as passing hard stools or decreasing* in the number of bowel motions or difficulty in passing stool.

Medically, constipation is defined as passing bowel motions less than three times weekly while severe constipation is defined as passing as less as one bowel motion weekly.

What Causes Constipation?

Constipation is basically caused by slow passage of foods into the colon. Following are some possible causes of constipation:

  • Frequent suppression of normal defecation urge.
  • Adopting low fiber diet.
  • Over consumption of laxatives.
  • Low level of thyroid hormone.
  • Normal part of women premenstrual period due to high level of estrogen and progesterone.
  • During pregnancy
  • Diseases in the colon; for example, diabetes, Hirschsprung’s disease, colon cancer, and Chagas disease.
  • Diseases of the nervous system, such as, spinal cord injury which leads to paralysis of the colonic muscles.

What Are the Symptoms of Constipation?

Many symptoms may occur with constipation, some of them are:

  • Decrease* in bowel motions
  • Difficulty passing stools
  • Pain in the belly
  • Distention in the abdomen
  • Pain during stool passage
  • Itching around the anus
  • Vomiting and nausea

How is Constipation Diagnosed?

Full medical history with physical exam is the key to diagnose the cause of constipation. Many tests may contribute in the evaluation and treating constipation.

Medical History:

It’s very crucial to take a full medical history from the patient, we are concerned about the following points:

  • Duration of constipation; it’s important to differentiate between acute and chronic constipation.
  • Other symptoms associated with constipation
  • Type of diet and lifestyle
  • Medications history
  • Other medical illnesses

Physical Exam:

The doctor will do full physical examination to identify any possible cause of constipation. It’s very important to do the anal examination to uncover any possible disorder there.

Tests your doctor may perform to diagnose the cause of your constipation include:

Diagnostic Tests:

  • Tests in the blood for certain hormones especially thyroid hormone
  • Barium enema to diagnose any obstruction in the colon
  • Direct colonoscopy to evaluate the colon surface

When to Contact a Medical Professional

You should consult your doctor in the following situations:

Constipation Symptoms
  • New onset of constipation
  • Blood in the stool
  • Unexplained losing of weight
  • Extreme fatigue for no clear reason
  • Distention of the abdomen
  • No passage of stools or flatus (complete obstruction)
  • Severe pain in the belly
  • Severe pain when passing stools
  • Chronic constipation which lasts more than 2 weeks

What Treatments are Available for Constipation?

Three major principles in the treatment of constipation:

  • First one: It’s very important to know if the constipation is of recent onset or of long duration. This point is very critical to assess the severity of the case and to put the suitable plan of management.
  • Second one: Start treatment as soon as possible and always try to use the safest methods first. This will control the problem early before it causing further complications. Add to that, it will protect the colon from the side effects of over usage of laxatives.
  • Third one: Use the simple methods first to treat* the constipation but if the problem persists for more than two weeks, you have to evaluate it with full diagnostic studies to know the underlying cause of this chronic constipation.

Finally, the major goal of constipation treatment is to reach a bowel motion of once every three days with no straining and no pain.

Home Remedies and OTC Medications to Treat* Constipation

Many home based tips can treat* constipation before trying to use over the counter medications to treat* it. Following are the three major tips:

  • Eat more fibers; add more fruits, vegetables, oats, and whole bran to your diet.
  • Drink more water daily
  • Do regular exercise

Many people will get rid of their constipation once they adopt the previous lifestyle changes but some of them will not, those may try to use some laxatives; which are over the counter medications for constipation treatment.

Laxatives are those medications which are used to empty the colon via causing diarrhea, especially if the patient is complaining from constipation. They are available everywhere even in the supermarkets as they are considered as one of the over the counter medications. Many problems are related to over usage of these medications, try to consult your doctor before using them.

Preventing Constipation in Adults

Multiple simple tips you can adopt to prevent constipation naturally, following are some of them:

  • Eat healthy diet which is rich in fibers. Fruits and vegetables are rich in fibers. Legumes and whole grains are great source of fibers.
  • You can use some artificial fiber supplements.
  • Drink more water; at least one litter daily.
  • Cut drinks that contain caffeine; especially, soft drinks and coffee.
  • Do regular exercising.
  • Use the toilet directly once you feel the urge.

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Expert Author : Lisiana Carter (Consumer Health Digest)

Lisiana Carter has been a freelance health writer for over ten years having written books, blogs and articles. She is the author of a number of websites and teaches people how to enter the freelance writing field.

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