Constipation is the infrequent and difficult passage of stool. The frequency of bowel movements among healthy people varies greatly, ranging from three movements a day to three a week. As a rule, if more than three days pass without a bowel movement, the intestinal contents may harden, and a person may have difficulty or even pain during elimination. Stool may harden and be painful to pass, however, even after shorter intervals between bowel movements. Straining during bowel movements or the feeling of incomplete evacuation may also be reported as constipation.
What are Some of the Causes of Constipation?
Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. Like a fever, constipation can be caused by many different conditions. Most people have experienced an occasional brief bout of constipation that has corrected itself with diet and time. The following is a list of some of the most common causes of constipation:
Poor Diet – A main cause of constipation may be a diet high in animal fats (meats, dairy products, eggs) and refined sugar (rich desserts and other sweets), but low in fiber (vegetables, fruits, whole grains). Some studies have suggested that high fiber diets result in larger stools, more frequent bowel movements, and therefore less constipation.
Imaginary Constipation – This is very common and results from misconceptions about what is normal and what is not. If recognized early enough, this type of constipation can be cured by informing the sufferer that the frequency of his or her bowel movements is normal.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) – Also known as spastic colon, IBS is one of the most common causes of constipation in the United States. Some people develop spasms of the colon that delay the speed with which the contents of the intestine move through the digestive tract, leading to constipation.
Poor Bowel Habits – A person can initiate a cycle of constipation by ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement. Some people do this to avoid using public toilets, others because they are too busy. After a period of time a person may stop feeling the urge. This leads to progressive constipation.
Laxative Abuse – People who habitually take laxatives become dependent upon them and may require increasing dosages until, finally, the intestine becomes insensitive and fails to work properly.
Travel – People often experience constipation when traveling long distances, which may relate to changes in lifestyle, schedule, diet, and drinking water.
Hormonal Disturbances – Certain hormonal disturbances, such as an underactive thyroid gland, can produce constipation.
Pregnancy – Pregnancy is another common cause of constipation. The reason may be partly mechanical, in that the pressure of the heavy womb compresses the intestine, and may be partly due to hormonal changes during pregnancy.
Fissures and Hemorrhoids – Painful conditions of the anus can produce a spasm of the anal sphincter muscle, which can delay a bowel movement.
Specific Diseases – Many diseases that affect the body tissues, such as scleroderma or lupus, and certain neurological or muscular diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson?s disease, and stroke, can be responsible for constipation.
Loss of Body Salts – The loss of body salts through the kidneys or through vomiting or diarrhea is another cause of constipation.
Mechanical Compression – Scarring, inflammation around diverticula, tumors, and cancer can produce mechanical compression of the intestine and result in constipation.
Nerve Damage – Injuries to the spinal cord and tumors pressing on the spinal cord can produce constipation by affecting the nerves that lead to the intestine.
Medications – Many medications can cause constipation. These include pain medications (especially narcotics), antacids that contain aluminum, antispasmodic drugs, antidepressant drugs, tranquilizers, iron supplements, anticonvulsants for epilepsy, antiparkinsonism drugs, and antihypertensive calcium channel blockers.
Colonic Motility Disorders – The peristaltic activity of the intestine may be ineffective resulting in colonic inertia or outlet obstruction.
Prevention of Constipation
Eat a well-balanced diet that includes unprocessed bran, whole-wheat grains, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Drink plenty of fluids.
Set aside time after breakfast or dinner for undisturbed visits to the toilet.
Don’t ignore the urge to defecate.
Whenever there is a significant or prolonged change in bowel habits, check with a doctor.