Perhaps the only thing worse than rushing to the bathroom is not being able to go at all. And constipation is even more common among adults than diarrhea. Read on for information about what to do when you need to go but can’t.
What is Constipation?
Constipation is defined as infrequent or difficult bowel movements that are often painful and involve hard stool. There is a wide range of “normal” bowel movement frequency all the way from three times a day to once a week. So constipation doesn’t have a specific number or timeline attached to it. It’s individual—constipation means bowel movements that are less frequent than usual for you. You may have stool that is hard, and you may experience bloating and pain in the back or abdomen while constipated.
Constipation is usually short-lived and can be made better through changes to your lifestyle and diet, for example drinking more water. Sometimes over-the-counter medications including laxatives or stool softeners are needed, it is important to note that chronic use of OTC laxatives can be dangerous and only to be used rarely. However, there are other solutions available if you experience frequent, unresponsive, or chronic constipation.
Women who experience constipation during pregnancy should talk to their doctor about safe and effective treatment options. Anyone with constipation should consult their healthcare provider if constipation does not improve with treatment, bleeding occurs, or constipation is accompanied by nausea, vomiting or weight loss.
What Causes Constipation?
Most people have experienced constipation at some point as a result of their routine being interrupted. Traveling, adapting to a new schedule, suffering from illness, or simply becoming too stressed or busy can result in constipation. But constipation has other causes as well.
Not getting enough fiber in your daily diet, or not drinking enough water are two common causes of constipation. On average, a person needs 30-40 grams of fiber per day, along with 6-8 glasses of water. Another common cause is simply not responding to the urge to go. Whether feeling too busy, avoiding the pain of going (which can often be due to hemorrhoids), or feeling limited for any other reason, delaying a trip to the bathroom can contribute to constipation.
Constipation is also caused by both over-the-counter and prescription medications. Things like iron supplements, calcium supplements, pain medications, antidepressants, and others can cause constipation. While laxatives are an effective treatment for constipation, overuse can result in dependency. In less common cases, constipation can be caused by some type of obstruction such as scar tissue from previous surgery, a tumor, pressure from carrying a baby in pregnancy, or impaction caused by hardened feces. Constipation can also be the result of illness including a variety of gastrointestinal diseases such as IBD, or other illnesses like hypothyroidism, diabetes, and depression.
How Can I Prevent Constipation?
Great question! It is generally simpler and healthier to prevent constipation altogether than to treat it once it occurs. And there are some basic lifestyle and diet choices you can make part of your regular routine that will help.
At its simplest, avoiding constipation relies on more of three things: more fiber, more fluids, and more exercise.
Adopting a high-fiber diet includes eating foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber creates more bulk which helps keep food moving as it travels through the digestive system. Soluble fiber thickens when combined with water and slows food in the gastrointestinal tract. Both types of fiber are important for a healthy diet and for managing constipation. The good news is most plant sources contain both types of fiber.
We all hear about the importance of getting enough water. But hydration is especially important with a high fiber diet. Water works with fiber to keep digestion working efficiently and to create regular bowel movements.
Finally, if you want to keep the poop moving, keep your whole body moving. Exercise helps food to move more quickly through the large intestine which helps prevent dry hard stool by decreasing how much water is absorbed from it. Exercise also naturally boosts your heart rate and breathing rate which makes muscles in the intestines contract to move stools out.
How Do I Treat Constipation?
There is no question that when it comes to constipation, prevention is better than a cure. However, we all know life happens, and sometimes that means poop doesn’t. Your first step to getting things moving again should be to increase the three things suggested for prevention: fiber, fluids, and exercise. But some constipation can’t be resolved with those steps alone. Home remedies as well as over-the-counter and prescription medications may help.
When it comes to home remedies, you may have had someone suggest (or even joke) that you should eat more prunes or drink prune juice when constipated. Prunes are an excellent source of fiber and may contain other ingredients that create a laxative effect. While doctors don’t yet know exactly what is responsible for this effect, it is a natural and low-risk home remedy.
Laxatives and fiber supplements are common and effective over-the-counter treatments for constipation. However, overuse or misuse of laxatives can cause serious side effects and long-term health problems. Be sure to read about the different options and ask your doctor about them. A gastroenterologist can help determine your underlying cause of constipation and recommend a solution to address that cause. Read on for a brief summary of some different forms of laxatives.
Bulk Supplements: These fiber supplements make stools softer and larger. They are safe to take every day, but they can have side effects like gas, bloating, and cramps. Common brands are Metamucil and Citrucel. They are typically made from the husks of grains or seeds like Psyllium, a soluble fiber made from seeds of an Indian herb, Plantago ovata. Bulk supplements can be taken to help relieve constipation, or to keep bowel movements regular. They should always be taken with plenty of water.
Lubricant Laxatives: As the name implies, lubricant laxatives work to lubricate the intestinal wall as well as soften stools so they move through more easily.
Stimulant Laxatives: These are the fastest acting laxatives because they actually cause contractions of the small intestine. However, there are significant side effects possible, and they should only be used on a short-term basis.
Osmotic Laxatives: Common brands like GlycoLax and MyraLax cause an increase in water in the stool and increase the number of bowel movements. These laxatives are often used to clean out the bowels before surgery or colonoscopy.
Stool Softeners: Also known as emollient laxatives, stool softeners increase the amount of moisture or fluid within the stool to keep it from being hard and dry.
Enemas and suppositories are used to clean out the rectum. They must be used correctly and are only intended for occasional use.
Probiotics: Probiotics are natural supplements that contain beneficial bacteria necessary for gut health. While research hasn’t proven constipation relief, there are few side effects to trying probiotics. Creating a healthier digestive system can help deal with issues like constipation.
If you’ve tried laxatives and other constipation remedies without lasting relief, you may be experiencing chronic constipation. You should consult your healthcare provider—there are other solutions available! GI Associates and Endoscopy Center offers a non-invasive and comfortable solution called HyGleaCare for people who experience recurring constipation. This painless in-office procedure offers constipation relief in less than an hour using warm water. Also used as a preparation for colonoscopy, the system gently loosens stool and empties the colon, providing relief for constipation and allowing for the return of normal bowel movements.
If you experience chronic constipation or have any other gastrointestinal concerns, request an appointment today at GI Associates and Endoscopy Center. We have three locations to serve you, and also specialize in pediatric gastrointestinal services.