The Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Constipation

Although many might not like to talk about it, constipation is an extremely common problem. Most people experience symptoms of constipation at some point and some people deal with it on and off during their lives. Constipation can be especially troubling for children and for elderly people. In the majority of cases that aren't caused by medication or a digestive problem, changes in diet and the addition of some regular exercise can help alleviate constipation.

While symptoms of constipation alone is not always a clear indication for a call to the doctor, severe or new-onset constipation, rectal bleeding, severe abdominal pain and/or other acute symptoms should prompt a doctor's visit. Also, more chronic constipation might need a formal diagnosis and treatment by a physician.

Read on to find out more about what may cause constipation, as well as how it is diagnosed and treated.

Causes of Constipation

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Many people may not recognize that a diet low in fiber and fluid intake is a key contributor to constipation. People who have restricted diets, such as those who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), may find it difficult at times to eat more fiber.

Being too sedentary can also bind up the bowels, which is a problem for people who are disabled or bedridden and unable to walk around or get exercise.

Many different diseases and conditions can also contribute to the development of constipation. Diseases that affect the nervous system, the endocrine system and the digestive tract may all lead to constipation.

Constipation may seem as though it is an unrelated problem, but in some cases, it might be traced back to a condition that seemingly has nothing to do with the large intestine.

Constipation from medications is another common problem. A wide variety of prescription drugs can contribute to constipation. Narcotics, which increase the amount of water absorbed in the bowel, are often implicated in causing constipation because they are so widely prescribed for many conditions.

Diagnosis of Constipation

A formal workup is often not necessary for occasional constipation. Furthermore, defining constipation for any one particular person can be tricky because bowel movements differ so much from person to person.

In general, constipation is having infrequent bowel movements (more than three days between) that are hard and dry in consistency and are difficult to pass. But for many, six bowel movements a week could also fit the definition of constipation. People who do not have any difficulty defecating (because of hard, dry stools) also may describe themselves as being constipated, even if they move their bowels on a regular basis.

If constipation becomes chronic, there could be more to the problem than simply a diet low in fiber; a physician might go looking for the root cause.

Tests can range from blood tests to a colonoscopy. If there is an underlying cause, treating that problem may help bring some relief.

Treatment for Constipation

The treatment for constipation usually starts with making changes to a person's diet and activity level. It can then move on to laxatives and enemas if needed.

In many cases, because constipation is caused by a lack of fiber in the diet, eating more fiber can often reverse the problem. A daily walk or other forms of exercise may also be helpful.

If your constipation is not responding to these simple methods, which can be done at home without a physician, bulk-forming laxatives might be the next step to getting the bowels moving again.

In some cases, stimulant laxatives or enemas may be used on a short-term basis, but they are not recommended for long-term use because they can be habit-forming.

Alternative remedies include biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and bowel retraining. These methods have less research behind them, but they can be started at any time and used along with other treatments.

Ultimately, the treatment for constipation will depend heavily on what is causing the problem in the first place. Constipation from disease or a problem with the bowel may not respond until the underlying cause is treated.

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.