We’ve all been there. It’s been more days than you can remember since your last bowel movement. You feel bloated and uncomfortable. You naturally continue eating as normal but as the food keeps going in, nothing is coming out. Your body seems to be saying to you, “something is wrong here.”
These are the classic signs of constipation. For most people, it’s a minor inconvenience, but it nevertheless can limit some of your daily activities or just generally make you feel uncomfortable as you go about otherwise mundane tasks. For others, though, it can portend a deeper medical problem and mustn’t be ignored.
What Are the Symptoms of Constipation?
Besides the obvious experience of not being able to have a bowel movement, the experience of constipation can vary by individual and even have related symptoms. Below are some typical symptoms that can point to constipation:
- Infrequent defecation (fewer than three times per week)
- It can be further considered as chronic constipation if the problem persists for several months
- Difficulty in initiating a bowel movement
- Passing hard stool
- Cramps or abdominal pains
- Higher than normal flatulence
- Bloating sensation
What Causes Constipation in Adults?
Constipation can be a symptom of a variety of conditions, and so there can be many different causes. Here are some of the more common causes of constipation to be mindful as you consider your bowel habits and evaluate the severity of your potential constipation:
Dietary Fiber: If your regular diet has too little fiber, you are very likely to develop constipation. Fiber is a crucial element in the healthy functioning of the digestive system because it builds stool bulk and helps them stay at a regular, softer consistency which in turn makes it easier to pass. Too little fiber prevents this from happening and can cause stools that are harder and take longer to pass.
Fluid Intake: Related to the amount of fiber is the amount of fluids we intake on a daily basis. Even with sufficient fiber intake, drinking too little water can similarly cause stools to be hard and pass irregularly.
Life Changes: There are times when our regular diet or exercise regimens are disrupted because of changes in life circumstances, stressful times, or when traveling. During these times we tend to eat different kinds of foods (often unhealthy) as well as eating at abnormal times; all of these factors can play a role in the development of constipation.
Exercise Habits: A healthy, functioning colon is generally responsive to vigorous physical activity, and so those who lack exercise in their daily lives will be more likely to have problems with constipation. Conversely, someone who rarely exercises or who has a sedentary job or lifestyle will be more likely to develop constipation.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Irritable bowel syndrome is a somewhat common condition that refers to a range of symptoms related to bowel movements. People with IBS tend to have constipation along with a variety of other related symptoms, and they remain more likely to develop constipation on a regular basis.
Resisting the Urge: Constipation can also be brought on by some lifestyle factors, such as repeatedly ignoring the “urge” to defecate. When you delay a bowel movement - either because of busyness or temporary lack of facilities - you can lose the urge to go. When this happens, moisture is continually absorbed from the stool, making it increasingly more difficult to pass.
Medications That Cause Constipation
Beyond the various circumstances listed above, there are also numerous medications and over-the-counter remedies that may cause constipation. It is important to consult with your doctor if you have been experiencing constipation while using any of these substances:
Laxatives: When constipation does arise, many people turn to laxatives for relief and resolution. However, laxatives are only meant as a short-term solution, and some end up overusing these substances. Overuse of laxatives can potentially cause long term damage to the nerve cells in the colon and end up increasing the propensity of developing constipation and decrease the effect of laxatives in general down the road.
Opioids: Constipation is a fairly common side effect of opioid-based pain relievers such as codeine or morphine. This is because the pain receptors that opioids attach to throughout the body also occur in the digestive tract.
Antacids: Over-the-counter antacids with calcium carbonate or aluminum hydroxide can lead to constipation. Examples include Mylanta, Tums, and Rolaids.
Antispasmodics: For people who have problems with muscle spasms, the antispasmodic drugs that act as a muscle relaxant can cause constipation.
Anticonvulsants: The drugs used to treat people suffering from epileptic seizures can sometimes have constipation as a side effect. Examples include phenytoin and carbamazepine.
Antidepressants: Examples include amitriptyline and imipramine.
Iron Supplements: If your doctor recommends iron supplements because of problems with anemia, one of the side effects can be constipation.
Diuretics: A diuretic functions by causing the body to secrete additional urine. While useful for some conditions, diuretics can also promote constipation by drawing too much water from stools and making them more difficult to pass.
Constipation and Diet: Home Remedies
For those with temporary constipation - or especially chronic constipation - the instinct to turn to medication for relief is understandable and normal. But for most people who suffer from constipation, resolution can be found with some simple changes to your everyday life and habits.
As alluded to above, there are over-the-counter laxatives that can relieve constipation in the short term but overuse can quickly increase constipation or lead to reduced laxative effectiveness in the future. For this reason, it is wise to limit the use of laxatives and consult with your doctor if the problem persists for more than three weeks.
The best way for most people to relieve or prevent constipation is a high fiber diet and regular exercise. A proper diet should include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; these foods are naturally high in fiber and promote overall bowel health as well as a reduced chance of becoming constipated. Fiber supplements can also help if you find that it is difficult to get enough fiber content in your regular daily diet.
Fluid consumption is additionally very important for bowel health (as well as overall health and wellbeing). Doctors recommend consuming 8, 8oz glasses of water a day for optimal health and digestive function. Conversely, when constipated, you should avoid drinking beverages with caffeine and alcohol; caffeine tends to have a dehydrating effect on your bowels while alcohol can have a negative effect on several areas, including gut bacteria and unhelpful relaxation of sphincter muscles.
Beyond diet and exercise changes, one other home remedy that is easy to implement is to have your knees elevated above your waist when defecating; this position can help stool pass more easily (even if you’re not already constipated) by promoting relaxation in the pelvis.
Constipation is an all-too-familiar problem for almost everyone, and it can range from a mild annoyance to a symptom of a much larger problem. For most people, some minor life changes can promote overall gastrointestinal health and greatly reduce the chance of constipation. But even if you already have it, there are a number of remedies that resolve the problem quickly. If you have constipation for three weeks or longer, or if you notice a sudden change in your bowel health, contact the office of Dr. Sameer Islam to make an appointment today. Our team is eager to help you find relief and treat constipation.