What is Constipation? What is Normal? When do I Need to See a Doctor About Constipation?
Generally, constipation refers to infrequent bowel movements, but it can also refer to a decrease in the weight or volume of stool. Constipation also includes difficulty in having a bowel movement, a sense of incomplete evacuation, or the need for laxatives or other medications to maintain regularity.
There is no specific “normal” number of bowel movements as it varies greatly among individuals. However, it can range from three times daily to three times weekly and still be considered normal. Some people can even go a week without a movement and experience no discomfort or harmful effects. Diet, liquid intake and exercise are the primary factors that affect normal bowel habits. Although the average American diet includes 12 to 15 grams of fiber daily, it is recommended to consume 25 to 30 grams of fiber along with 80 ounces of fluid a day. Exercise is very beneficial for proper colon functioning. For most Americans this indicates the need to add more fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and high fiber cereals to their diet. It is well known that the average American today has a poor diet and does not exercise at least three times a week. Any improvement in these areas will help with constipation.
What Causes Constipation?
As with many of these abdominal conditions the exact cause of constipation is not known, but it seems clear that most cases are related to diet and exercise as mentioned above. Inadequate fiber, water/fluid intake and a sedentary lifestyle are certainly factors with constipation. In addition travel, pregnancy, or a change in diet or even resisting the urge to have a bowel movement can aggravate the situation. In rare cases constipation can be a side effect of several diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and others.
Another cause can be the use of some medications such as pain killers which are known to cause or worsen the condition. Other medications include antidepressants, tranquilizers, blood pressure medications, diuretics, iron supplements, calcium supplements, and antacids with aluminum.
Should I see a Doctor about Constipation?
If there is a persistent change in bowel habits over a few weeks, you should consult your physician. This includes a change in frequency or size of stool or difficulty in evacuating.
How is Constipation treated?
First the physician will identify the cause of your condition. Since there are many possibilities, your physician will start with a digital exam to determine any physical abnormalities. Further examination with a flexible lighted instrument or a barium x-ray study may help determine the cause as well as establish if there are more complications such as polyps, tumors, or diverticular disease. Other tests are available to determine causes and help specify treatment.
Oftentimes treatment is as simple as adding fiber, fluids and exercise to the patient’s regimen. Your physician may also recommend fiber supplements to help ensure the needed fiber in your diet. Adding fiber can also help lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of developing colon polyps and cancer, and help prevent hemorrhoids.
Although fiber supplements may take months to take full effect, they are much safer and non-habit forming as some stimulant laxatives may become with frequent use or abuse. We provide our patients with a line of high fiber, vegetarian supplements that contain no sugar, starch, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, corn, soy, yeast, wheat, egg, or milk products.
Our patients have found these supplements to be easy and effective in maintaining regularity.*
*These dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Surgery is rarely indicated with constipation. As with any persistent problem with bowel habits see your physician for an evaluation of your condition. It is wise to catch things early rather that allowing any condition to worsen over time.