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According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, constipation is one of the most common digestive problems in the U.S, with more than four million Americans every year complaining of frequent constipation. (NIDDKD, 2012) Frequent constipation is commonly defined as having bowel movements fewer than three times a week and with hard, dry stools.
Your colon’s job is to absorb water and salt from food as it’s passing through your digestive system. It then creates stool (waste). The colon’s muscles eventually propel the waste out through the rectum to be eliminated. If stools remain in the colon too long, they can become hard and difficult to pass.
Poor diet frequently causes constipation, since dietary fiber and adequate water intake are necessary to help keep stools soft. Fiber-rich foods are plant foods that your body is not able to digest. Fiber comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. The soluble fiber can dissolve in water, and it creates a soft, gel-like material as it passes through the digestive system. Insoluble fiber retains most of its structure as it goes through the digestive system.
Fiber is very helpful in easing constipation, as both forms of the fiber join with the dry, hard stools—increasing their weight and size while also softening the stools, making it easier for them to pass through the rectum.
Changes in routine, stress, and other conditions that slow muscle contractions of the colon or delay your urge to “go” may also lead to constipation.
Every person’s definition of “normal” bowel movements may be different. Some individuals go three times a day, while others go three times a week. However, you may be constipated if you experience the following symptoms:
Eating a poor diet and not exercising are major risk factors for constipation. However, you may be at greater risk if you are:
Many people affected by constipation choose to self-treat by changing their diets, increasing their exercise, or using over-the-counter laxatives. However, laxatives should not be used for more than two weeks without consulting a physician because your body can become dependent on them for colon function.
You should talk to your general or family practitioner if:
Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, medical history, and any medications or underlying medical conditions. A physical examination may include a rectal exam and blood tests to check your thyroid function.
In severe cases, additional tests may be required to identify the cause of your symptoms. These may include:
Changing your diet and increasing your physical activity level are the easiest and fastest ways to treat and prevent constipation. Try the following techniques as well:
Your doctor may also advise that you stop taking certain medications that may cause constipation. More severe colon or rectal problems may require manual procedures to clear the colon of impacted stool, therapy to retrain slow muscles, or surgery to remove the problem part of your colon.
Most cases of constipation are mild and are easily treated with changes in diet and exercise. However, if you are experiencing chronic constipation, or constipation along with other changes in bowel movements, it is important that you talk to your doctor.
Written by: Danielle Moores
Published on Jul 25, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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