When you have to go, you have to go. But when you can’t, you’re not alone. Constipation – defined as infrequent bowel movements or hard-to-pass stool – is a common digestive complaint.
Usually, constipation is a short-term problem that can be fixed with some home care remedies. But problems may arise when constipation becomes frequent. About 16 percent of US adults have chronic constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Women and older adults are especially at risk for having chronic constipation.
Long-lasting constipation can lead to complications such as hemorrhoids or fecal impaction, which happens when hardened stool gets stuck to the colon or rectum and prevents passage. This condition occurs most often with children and older adults and is remedied most commonly by an enema.
“Contact your primary care doctor if frequent constipation is interfering with your daily life and home remedies are not working,” says Anhthu Tran, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Oceanside.“Constipation is not a disease, but it may be a sign of an underlying condition such as a gastrointestinal problem.”
General constipation refers to having fewer than three bowel movements per week, while people with severe constipation typically have less than one bowel movement per week. If you strain while on the toilet or your poop is hard or small, you’re probably constipated.
Constipation can be triggered by many things, including certain medications, poor bowel habits, low-fiber diets, overuse of laxatives and hormonal imbalances. Other causes include problems with the colon or rectum (such as intestinal obstruction, irritable bowel syndrome or diverticulosis), or high levels of estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy.
In addition to having infrequent bowel movements or hard-to-pass feces, other symptoms of constipation include:
- Sense of incomplete evacuation after going to the bathroom (you don’t feel relief after going)
- Lower abdomen discomfort
- Abdominal bloating
- Anal bleeding from trauma caused by hard feces
Most of the time constipation is not serious and can be managed with lifestyle changes or over-the-counter medication. But when it becomes a problem, most people aren’t comfortable talking about it because they don’t want to discuss their bowel habits.
“Because digestive problems are easier to deal with when caught early, not talking about constipation with your doctor can lead to bigger problems,” says Dr. Tran. “Many digestive problems can be managed with lifestyle changes, such as eating more fiber, drinking more water and exercising more. So don’t be afraid to bring up constipation issues with your doctor.”
Many digestive issues can be prevented and eliminated by making simple changes that last. Follow these tips to stay regular and keep things moving in the right direction:
Fiber is the undigested parts of plant-based food. It smooths and bulks up stool, so it passes more easily through the colon. The best natural sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds and legumes. Prunes (dried plums) are a rich source of insoluble fiber and can serve as a natural laxative. Other high-fiber foods include apples, strawberries, cooked broccoli, raw carrots, oatmeal, almonds and black beans. Take fiber supplements if natural sources don’t seem to provide enough relief.
Water aids the digestive process by helping your body flush wastes and toxins, and helping your colon eliminate waste, which prevents constipation. The amount of water you need every day may depend on numerous factors, such as activity level, geographic location and temperature.
Being sedentary is a risk factor for constipation. Daily physical activity can help your body’s digestive system move things along and eliminate waste. Try walking, cycling, swimming, using an elliptical trainer or hiking. If you do not have a lot of time to work out, even taking several 10- to 15-minute walks a day will help.
When the urge comes, find a bathroom. If you repeatedly ignore the urge to have a bowel movement when you need to, it may lead to constipation.
Work with your physician and pharmacist to see if there are drugs that you are taking that could be contributing to constipation. Talk with your doctor to determine if the medication can be discontinued or changed.
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.