What is it?

Nutrients are removed from the food you eat during digestion and the remaining waste (stool) is passed on to the colon. As the waste is passed through the colon, water is absorbed. The colonic muscles contract to move the stool through the colon at a steady pace. During passage, most of the water is absorbed and the remaining water eases the passage of the stool out of the body.

Constipation is caused by delayed movement of the stool through the colon. The stool becomes hard and dry because water is constantly being absorbed during the passage of the stool. Dry, hard stools are very hard or painful to pass. This leads to fewer bowel movements and straining. Constipation can be temporary or chronic and often controlled.

What causes constipation?

The main cause of constipation is slow movement of stool through the colon. This can be caused by the following:

  • low fiber and water in the diet
  • poor bowel habits, ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
  • older age
  • pregnancy
  • disruption of normal routine
  • lack of physical activity
  • medications – pain medications, antidepressants, diuretics, iron supplements
  • conditions such as diabetes and thyroid disease

What are the symptoms of constipation?

  • feeling of fullness in the rectum
  • bloating and gas
  • feeling the urge but unable to pass stool
  • abdominal pain and cramping
  • nausea

How is constipation diagnosed?

Your doctor will perform a health history to help find the cause of your constipation and rule out any underlying health problems. Your doctor may ask

  • How long have you had symptoms?
  • What types of foods do you eat?
  • How much activity do you usually get?
  • Do you have any other health problems?
  • What medications do you take?

Tests may be done in more serious cases of constipation.

  • blood and stool samples
  • colonoscopy – your colon is viewed through a flexible tube
  • barium enema – your colon is filled with a liquid barium solution and x-rays of the entire colon are taken
  • colon motility studies – identifies how well stool moves through your colon

How is constipation treated?

Treatment will be determined by the results of your evaluation. Common treatments for constipation include:

  • High fiber diet – Fiber adds bulk and absorbs water to soften stool and assist in its passage. Fiber is found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables.
  • Increase fluids – Water and other fluids such as fruit juices can help soften the stool. Your doctor will advise how much you should drink each day and the types of fluids you should drink.
  • Regular exercise – Helps improve the working condition of your colon. Consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.
  • Laxatives – Used when the other treatments fail to work. Laxatives work to stimulate the colon to work more frequently. Laxatives include bulk-forming agents and stool softeners. Follow your doctor’s instructions for taking any prescribed laxative.