To poop or not to poop? This can be an uncomfortable situation that many people occasionally face. Constipation is one of the most common complaints doctors hear. In fact, it is estimated that close to 2.5 million Americans seek care for constipation each year.
According to The American College of Gastroenterology, constipation is described as having unsatisfactory bowel movements characterized by infrequent stools, trouble passing stool or both. While many believe it’s best to have a bowel movement each day, healthy people actually may have as few as three bowel movements each week.
- Slow transit constipation occurs when food moves too slowly after digestion, losing water content and becoming hard. This is often the result of dehydration, a change in your diet or activity level, and taking certain medications, such as opioids, antacids and iron supplements.
- Outlet constipation is caused by the gradual enlargement of the rectum and poor coordination of the pelvic and anal muscles.
Both types of constipation can be related to having certain medical conditions, including stroke, depression, diabetes, hypothyroidism and irritable bowel syndrome.
Dr. Sandhu recommends the following home care steps to prevent and relieve constipation:
- Establish a regular exercise regimen to regulate bowel patterns.
- Take advantage of the gastrocolic reflex (stimulating movement in the gastrointestinal tract) by scheduling toileting after meals.
- Use a small step stool to rest the feet, rather than placing them on the floor, to reduce straining and make elimination easier.
- Drink 50 to 70 ounces of water and ingest 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day to improve stool frequency. (Dietary fiber acts as a bulking agent and should be increased gradually over several weeks to avoid adverse side effects.)
If these steps don’t work, Dr. Sandhu suggests osmotic laxatives, which relieve constipation by increasing the water in the bowel. If symptoms persist, a stimulant laxative, which generally causes a bowel movement within six to eight hours, can help. Stool softeners, suppositories or enemas can also help. Too frequent use of laxatives can disrupt the body’s electrolyte and mineral balance and contribute to reduced bowel function. Patients who depend on laxatives to have a bowel movement should talk to their doctor.
“Maintaining a balanced diet with adequate fluid and fiber intake promotes regular bowel movements,” Dr. Sandhu says. “Establishing a regular pattern for bowel movements, most often in the morning or after meals, can also help ensure regularity.”
Talk to your doctor if you experience a persistent change in bowel movements and the above-mentioned treatments do not relieve symptoms. Another cause of constipation — bowel obstruction — is rare, but can be serious and requires immediate care.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Jyotu Sandhu about constipation for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.