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Chronic constipation: Facts vs. myths

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Constipation is a very common digestive complaint in the UK and not 'keeping regular' or being unable to pass stools (poo) regularly without discomfort can make life miserable.

Not only does constipation make you feel bloated, uncomfortable and irritable, but relieving constipation, especially long-term or chronic constipation, can be difficult. Constipation affects people of all ages from babies to elderly people.

Constipation affects twice as many women as it does men. Constipation is also common during pregnancy. Older adults are five times more likely to have constipation than younger ones.

Chronic constipation: What is it?

The definition of constipation is opening the bowels, which doctors call stool frequency, less than a person usually does or less than three times per week, or straining, having difficulty passing stools (poo) or passing dry, hard or pellet-like stool regularly.

Chronic constipation: What's normal and what's not?

If you or a loved one has chronic constipation, much of the anxiety and distress may result from a lack of knowledge about this problem. Not only are there magnified fears about what might be causing the problem, the discomfort of chronic constipation itself can be debilitating. Constipation may slow your performance at work and even cause you to miss recreational activities. That's why it's important to know the facts about chronic constipation and talk to your doctor about your personal situation.

Let's look at some chronic constipation myths and then identify the real truths:

Chronic constipation myth: If you don't have one bowel movement a day, it's abnormal.

The truth: Fewer than 50% of people have one bowel movement a day.

Chronic constipation myth: Fewer than five or six bowel movements a week is considered to be chronic constipation.

The truth: 95% of adults have bowel movements between three times a day and once every three days. The entire range, even just three bowel movements a week, is normal.

Chronic constipation myth: The number of bowel movements increases with age.

The truth: Actually, the number of bowel movements decreases with age.

Chronic constipation myth: Chronic constipation does not affect that many people.

The truth: Chronic constipation is a common problem.

Chronic constipation myth: If you eat healthily, exercise, and drink plenty of fluids, you should never suffer from chronic constipation.

The truth: Sometimes psychological issues trigger chronic constipation. For instance, childhood sexual or physical abuse, or the loss of a parent through divorce, separation or death, may contribute to adult chronic constipation. Constipation often coexists with depression. Chronic constipation can also be caused by an underlying medical condition such as low thyroid hormone levels and some medications.

Chronic constipation: What causes it?

After eating, food moves through your digestive tract. The intestines take water and nutrients from the food. Normally, the process continues until a stool is formed. Squeezing contractions in the intestine then pass the stool out of the body.

The most common causes of constipation are insufficient fibre or fluids, inactivity, changes in routine that alter bowel habit or ignoring the body's call to go to the toilet.

There is a strong association with stress and emotional disturbance and constipation, but more research is necessary to better understand the link.

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