What Is Constipation?

Definition of Constipation

Constipation (Lat. constipare = to press together) means passing stool less frequently than 3 times a week. However, this is not the entire definition because even a person who is having regular bowel movements may still be constipated if they experience straining and discomfort when passing stool.

Normally a person would pass stool daily, sometimes as frequently as twice a day, or as infrequently as every second or third day. Although this is considered as a normal bowel habit, it is important to note that the passage of stool does not require excessive straining and is not associated with significant discomfort.

Symptoms of Constipation

Constipation is a symptom. It is usually accompanied with:

  • Straining or pain during the bowel movement or feeling of incomplete bowel emptying
  • Hard and dry stool or pellets-like stool

Other common symptoms include:

  • Bloating and excessive gas
  • Coated tongue, bad taste, offensive breath
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite and weight loss

Blood in the stool or bleeding while wiping after a bowel movement are symptoms associated with hemorrhoids.

Signs of Constipation

A signs is an evidence of disease detected by a doctor. Constipation may be present without any specific sign, but often a doctor can find:

  • A palpable mass or abdominal distension in the lower left abdomen, possibly tender to touch
  • Hard stool in the rectum during digital rectal examination
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Anal fissure (crack)

Causes of Constipation

Most cases of constipation are not known. Even with thorough investigation the cause cannot be discovered and it is therefore termed functional constipation. It is believed that these cases of constipation, that are not due to disease, are a result of slower than normal bowel motility and dysfunction of the anal sphincter that allows stool to pass out during defecation. Causes of constipation include :

  • inappropriate diet
  • dehydration
  • inactivity (sedentary lifestyle)
  • physical and psychological stress
  • depression and anxiety
  • various bowel diseases
  • chronic diseases even those conditions that do not affect the bowel
  • prescription medication and some illicit drugs.

Is Constipation Dangerous?

Constipation by itself is not dangerous, but it can lead to complications, like hemorrhoids, anal fissure, diverticulosis and fecal incontinence. If severe and left untreated, constipation can lead to abnormal dilatation of the colon and a condition known as toxic megacolon. This can be dangerous and even life threatening. However, toxic megacolon is a rare complication of prolonged and severe constipation. Sometimes there are serious disorders of the bowel that may present with constipation as a symptoms. In these cases the threat is not from constipation itself but from the underlying disease.

Prevention of Constipation

Some measures that may help preventing constipation includes :

  • fiber-rich diet
  • regular water intake
  • physical activity and exercise
  • stress management

Treatment of Constipation

Constipation is treated by removing its cause (if possible), change of lifestyle, laxatives and, rarely, surgery. However, most constipation sufferers doe not require any specific medical treatment when the condition is not associated with any specific disease or substances. Simples measures that may help with the treatment of constipation includes :

  • Increasing water intake to 1.5 to 2 liters.
  • Eating fiber rich foods and using fiber supplements.
  • Gentle massage of the abdomen, abdominal exercises and other forms of physical activity.
  • Laxatives may only be useful if it is used for a short period of time as a part of bowel training.
  • Stool softeners for short periods of time.

References:

  1. Constipation definition  (digestive.niddk.nih.gov)
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