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Defining Constipation and Finding Relief

Constipation — it may not be something we like talking about or something to be brought up in polite company, but many people throughout the world experience constipation’s symptoms. These can be hints of underlying conditions or just a sign that you need to change your diet. It may even be a once-off experience. Whether it’s chronic or a once-and-done occurrence for you, it’s worth knowing what constipation is and what causes it. Only then can you find the relief you’re searching for.

What is Constipation?

Constipation can be lightly defined as difficulty passing a bowel movement and can manifest in a few different forms. It can be tough bowel movements, meaning hard, small, or dry stools that make it difficult to go to the bathroom. There can also be a problem with frequency, often considered fewer than three times a week, though this is an imperfect number. The correct number of bowel movements a week varies from person to person, and the average person can go anywhere from three times a day to three times a week. While frequency can vary, it’s important to know that one can lead to the other. Hard, dry, or small stools can lead to less frequent bowel movements, while less frequent bowel movements can cause stools to become hard.

Of course, constipation isn’t just a matter of not needing to use the bathroom, and with the variance in common bowel movement frequency, it can be difficult to identify if you’re constipated. The general symptoms of constipation are:

  • Fewer than three bowel movements in a week
  • Hard or small stools
  • Bloating or stomach pain
  • Straining to pass stools
  • Stools that are difficult or painful to pass
  • Feeling like you haven’t emptied your bowels, even after a bowel movement
  • Experiencing rectal blockage

An episode of constipation may be uncomfortable, but it’s possible for constipation to become chronic. Now, chronic constipation doesn’t mean that you don’t have a bowel movement for weeks at a time. Instead, it’s when the symptoms of constipation, the infrequent or painful movements for example, go on for at least three months, sometimes even longer. Whether your constipation is chronic or not, it can still get in the way of your life enough to be a concern.

What Causes It?

Like many things with our health, there are a number of factors that can make constipation more likely. For example, certain demographics are more prone to constipation — like women (especially during or just after a pregnancy) and older adults. With how common it can be though, it’s clear that anyone can become constipated. Stress can also cause constipation when it’s common enough. Beyond demographics and certain life changes, there are two main causes of constipation: medications and diet.

First, let’s look at the medications. Antidepressants and narcotic or opioids are two of the prominent types of medications that can cause constipation. Others — like iron supplements, some antiacids, and some drugs that treat heart disease — can also play a part. Another big cause of constipation is dietary. Not getting enough fiber in your diet is a big factor that can lead to constipation. Hydration can also be important to healthy bowel movements, with dehydration making stools more difficult to move. Additionally, some foods like dairy and fried foods can cause or make constipation worse.

More concerning, however, is the potential medical conditions that include constipation as a symptom. These diseases can include:

  • Chrohn’s Disease
  • Colon Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Diverticulitis
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

If you have chronic constipation, as well as other symptoms that grow concerning, you should visit your doctor to see if perhaps your constipation is caused by an underlying condition.

How Can You Find Relief?

If you’re experiencing constipation, don’t fret. There are ways you can relieve yourself of the stress and discomfort. First and foremost, it’s important that you talk to your doctor, especially if you may be taking medications that could be influencing or even causing the constipation. If it turns out that the medication is causing the infrequent bowel movements, you may be able to work with your doctor to find alternative medications. Otherwise, they may instruct you to take an over-the-counter laxative. We do suggest talking to a health care professional before trying laxatives just to be safe. If over-the-counter options aren’t working, your doctor may be able to prescribe you stronger medications or even surgery for the most severe cases.

In the long term, you can lower your chances of constipation or combat chronic constipation by making healthier dietary choices. Making sure you’re getting enough fiber and water in your diet can be really helpful, since those are two of the most common causes. Coffee has also been linked to laxative effects, should you need them. Additionally, there’s evidence that regular exercise can help combat constipation. Foods rich in probiotics and other foods that help with digestive and gut health may even alleviate some of the discomfort with constipation.

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Ultimately, finding relief from constipation is about taking care of yourself and your digestive health and working with your doctor to determine any possible causes. And, while it may be uncomfortable to talk about any bowel movement issues you may be having, it can also be the first step to treating them. This is especially true with your doctor, who should treat any health concerns you have with the dignity and respect you deserve. Luckily, with the help of your doctor, whether your constipation is dietary or medical, you should be able to find that relief you’re looking for.