The Basics of Constipation
Constipation is one of those topics few like to talk about. If you’ve suffered from this problem, though, you know it can be both painful and frustrating. Almost everyone gets constipated at some time during his or her life. It affects approximately 2% of the population in the U.S. Women and the elderly are more commonly affected. Though not usually serious, constipation can be a concern.
What Is Constipation?
Constipation occurs when bowel movements become difficult or less frequent. The normal length of time between bowel movements ranges widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements three times a day; others, only one or two times a week. Going longer than three days without a bowel movement is too long. After three days, the stool or feces become harder and more difficult to pass.
You are considered constipated if you have two or more of the following for at least 3 months:
- Straining during a bowel movement more than 25% of the time
- Hard stools more than 25% of the time
- Incomplete evacuation more than 25% of the time
- Two or fewer bowel movements in a week
What Causes Constipation?
Constipation is usually caused by a disorder of bowel function rather than a structural problem. Common causes of constipation include:
- Inadequate water intake
- Inadequate fiber in the diet
- A disruption of regular diet or routine; traveling
- Inadequate activity or exercise or immobility
- Eating large amounts of dairy products
- Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement, which is sometimes the result of pain from hemorrhoids
- Overuse of laxatives (stool softeners) which, over time, weaken the bowel muscles
- Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
- Antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
- Medicines (especially strong pain medicines, such as narcotics, antidepressants, or iron pills)
- Eating Disorders
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Colon Cancer
How Can I Prevent Constipation?
There are several things you can do to prevent constipation. Among them:
- Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fiber. Good sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereal (especially bran). Fiber and water help the colon pass stool.
- Drink 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of water and other fluids a day (unless fluid restricted for another medical condition). Liquids that contain caffeine, such as coffee and soft drinks, seem to have a dehydrating effect and may need to be avoided until your bowel habits return to normal. Some people may need to avoid milk, as dairy products may be constipating for them.
- Exercise regularly.
- Move your bowels when you feel the urge.
What Should I Do If I Am Constipated?
If you are constipated, try the following:
- Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day (unless fluid restricted).
- Try warm liquids, especially in the morning.
- Eat prunes and/or bran cereal.
- If needed, use a very mild stool softener. (See our Liquid Fiber)
Reviewed By Andrew Seibert, MD for WebMD.com
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