Understanding constipation: Symptoms, treatment and prevention
What is constipation?
Your digestive system is remarkably efficient. In the space of a few hours it extracts nutrients from the foods you eat and drink, processes them into the bloodstream and prepares leftover material for disposal. That material passes through six metres or more of intestine before being stored temporarily in the colon, where water is removed. The residue is excreted through the bowels, normally within a day or two.
Depending on your diet, your age and your daily activity, regularity can mean anything from three bowel movements a day to one every three days. Nonetheless, the longer faecal material sits in the colon, the harder the stool becomes and the more difficult it is to pass. A normal stool should not be either unusually hard or soft, and you shouldn't have to strain unreasonably to pass it.
What causes constipation?
Our busy, modern lifestyles may be responsible for most cases of constipation: not eating enough fibre or drinking enough water, not getting enough exercise, and not taking the time to respond to an unmistakable urge to defecate. Emotional and psychological problems can contribute to the problem. Persistent, chronic constipation may also be a symptom of health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, colorectal cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, an under-active thyroid gland and depression.
Bowel habits tend to vary with age and circumstances. Bottle-fed babies, for example, tend to have firmer stools and more bouts of constipation than breast-fed babies. Some children become constipated when they start school or other activities because they are embarrassed to ask permission to use the toilet. Toddlers often become constipated during toilet training if they are unwilling or afraid to use the toilet. Being sensitive to pain, children may avoid the toilet if they have minor splits or tears in the anus from straining or other irritations.
Older people, especially those who are more sedentary, tend to develop constipation more often as well.
Some medications can also cause constipation, including narcotic-type pain killers including codeine, iron supplements and some medicines used to control blood pressure.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
- Hard, compacted stools that are difficult or painful to pass
- Straining during bowel movements
- No bowel movements in three days
- Stomach aches that are relieved by bowel movements
- Bloody stools due to haemorrhoids and anal fissures
- Leaks of wet, almost diarrhoea-like stool between regular bowel movements.
Seek medical advice if:
- Constipation is associated with a temperature and lower abdominal pain, and your stools are thin or loose; these symptoms may be an indication of diverticulitis or other bowel disease.
- You have blood in your stools; this may be from a fissure or haemorrhoid but could also be a sign of colorectal cancer; changes in your bowel movement pattern, such as passing pencil-thin stools, may also signal colorectal cancer.
- Your constipation develops after you start a new prescription drug or take vitamin or mineral supplements; you may need to discontinue the medication or change the dose.
- You or your child has been constipated for two to three weeks, with recurrent abdominal pain; this could be a sign of lead poisoning or other serious ailment.
- You are elderly or disabled and have been constipated for a week or more; you may have an impacted stool.
- You are losing weight even though you aren't dieting.
- You have severe pain with bowel movements.