Constipation is a condition in which a person has uncomfortable or infrequent bowel movements. A person is considered to be constipated when bowel movements result in small amounts of hard, dry stool fewer than three times a week. But this depends on the individual as normal stool elimination may consist of having a bowel movement three times a day or three times a week.
About 4 million people in the United States have frequent constipation, the most common gastrointestinal complaint.
Constipation causes some individuals to strain during bowel movements. This may lead to additional complications including:
- Rectal bleeding
- Anal fissures
- Rectal prolapse, where a small amount of intestinal lining pushes out from the anal opening
Constipation may also cause fecal impaction, which occurs mostly in children and older adults. The hard stool packs the intestine and rectum so tightly that the normal pushing action of the colon is not enough to expel the stool.
Hard, dry stools are the result of the colon absorbing too much water. As food moves through the colon (also known as the large intestine) the colon normally absorbs water while forming stool. Most water will be absorbed when the stool reaches the rectum, and the stool becomes solid.
When the colon's muscle contractions are sluggish, the stool moves through the colon too slowly, resulting in too much water being absorbed. Some of the most common causes of constipation include the following:
- Lack of exercise
- Not enough liquids
- Not enough fiber in the diet
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
- Changes in habits or lifestyle, such as travel, pregnancy, and old age
- Problems with intestinal function
- Abuse of laxatives
The following are the most common symptoms of constipation. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Difficult and painful bowel movements
- Bowel movements fewer than three times a week
- Feeling bloated or uncomfortable
- Feeling sluggish
- Abdominal pain
The symptoms of constipation may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
The tests performed by a doctor will depend on the duration and severity of the constipation, since most persons experience constipation at one time or another. The doctor will also take into account the patient's age, and whether there is blood in the stool, recent changes in bowel habits, or weight loss.
Diagnosing constipation may include:
- Medical history - The doctor will ask for a description of the constipation, including duration of symptoms, frequency of bowel movements, and other information to help determine the cause of the constipation.
- Physical examination - A physical examination may also include a digital rectal examination (DRE), in which the doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to evaluate the tone of the muscle that closes off the anus. This examination also helps detect tenderness, obstruction, blood, amount and caliber of stool, and if enlargement of the rectum is present.
Other diagnostic tests may include:
- Abdominal X-ray
- Lower GI (gastrointestinal) series (also called barium enema) - A lower GI series is a procedure that examines the rectum, the large intestine, and the lower part of the small intestine. A fluid called barium (a metallic, chemical, chalky, liquid used to coat the inside of organs so that they will show up on an X-ray) is given into the rectum as an enema. An X-ray of the abdomen shows strictures (narrowed areas), obstructions (blockages), and other problems.
- Colonoscopy - Colonoscopy is a procedure that allows the doctor to view the entire length of the large intestine, and can often help identify abnormal growths, inflamed tissue, ulcers, and bleeding. It involves inserting a colonoscope, a long, flexible, lighted tube, in through the rectum up into the colon. The colonoscope allows the doctor to see the lining of the colon, remove tissue for further examination, and possibly treat some problems that are discovered.
- Sigmoidoscopy - A sigmoidoscopy is a diagnostic procedure that allows the doctor to examine the inside of a portion of the large intestine, and is helpful in identifying the causes of diarrhea, abdominal pain, constipation, abnormal growths, and bleeding. A short, flexible, lighted tube, called a sigmoidoscope, is inserted into the intestine through the rectum. The scope blows air into the intestine to inflate it and make viewing the inside easier.
- Colorectal transit study - This test shows how well food moves through the colon. The patient swallows capsules containing small markers which are visible on X-ray. The patient follows a high-fiber diet during the course of the test, and the movement of the markers through the colon is monitored with abdominal X-rays taken several times three to seven days after the capsule is swallowed.
- Anorectal function tests - These tests diagnose constipation caused by an abnormal functioning of the anus or rectum.
The expert gastroenterologists at Northwell Health work with patients on an individual level to provide a tailored treatment that’s best for their condition. The treatments can include fiber supplements or laxatives.
Patients who do not respond to laxatives may require additional observation. During this period, the clinical staff will identify and categorize the specific type of constipation a patient experiences to refine the treatment.
Harnessing the expertise of the clinical staff and latest in diagnostic technology, Northwell is uniquely able to conduct tests that provide the most accurate diagnosis for accurate therapies.
These tests may include:
- Anal rectal monometry: a test to see if an anal sphincter abnormality is the cause of constipation.
- Whole gut transit: When the colon is sluggish and doesn’t prepare stool quick enough, Northwell physicians observe the motility of the stomach, small bowels and colon to see how fast each works and empties.
Specific treatment for constipation will be determined by your doctor based on:
- Your age, overall health, and medical history
- Extent of the condition
- Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- Expectations for the course of this condition
- Your opinion or preference
Most often, constipation can be treated through dietary and lifestyle changes, which relieve symptoms and help prevent the condition. Treatment may include:
- Diet modifications. A diet with 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily helps in the formation of soft, bulky stool. While adding foods such as beans, whole grains, bran cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables is helpful in adding fiber to the diet. Limiting foods such as ice cream, cheeses, meats, and processed foods, which contain little or no fiber can also be helpful.
- Laxatives. May be prescribed after diet and lifestyle changes have failed to be effective.
- Eliminating or changing medication
- Biofeedback. Used to treat chronic constipation caused by anorectal dysfunction. This treatment retrains the muscles that control release of bowel movements.
Lifestyle changes, such as increased water and juice intake, regular exercise, and allowing enough time for daily bowel movements can be helpful.