There are times in everyone’s lives when we suffer from constipation. This is known as occasional constipation, and is not considered serious due to the fact that it can be treated simply and effectively by self-medication. Americans spend more than a whopping $700 million annually on over-the-counter laxatives. However, there is also chronic constipation which is diagnosed when a person has had less than three bowel movements in a week, or has great difficulty in passing a stool. It is estimated that around 30% of Americans suffer with chronic constipation.
In healthy people, the number of regular bowel movements will vary from person to person. There is no set norm for how many bowel movements a person should have daily or weekly. One person may have bowel movements three times a day, while someone else, who is just as healthy, may only have three or four per week. However, if your regularity pattern decreases, then you may be constipated. Apart from having less frequent bowel movements, one of the most common symptoms of constipation is a feeling of bloatedness. A feeling of sluggishness is also a typical symptom of constipation.
Constipation occurs when the colon absorbs an excessive amount of water. This hinders the easy movement of the stool through the colon, resulting in dry, hard stools. If a symptom of constipation persists, despite the use of a laxative, you should contact a doctor, as you may be chronically constipated. What is the cause of constipation? Constipation is caused by varying factors which include a lack of exercise, certain medications and not enough fiber in the diet. A lack of fiber is the most common cause of constipation. High-fiber foods include fruit and vegetables, whole grain bread, meat, cheese and eggs. The ADA (American Dietetic Association) recommends a daily intake of 30g of fiber every day.
The insufficient intake of liquids is also a cause of constipation. Liquids, especially water, assist in softening the contents in the colon, thereby making the stool easy to pass. People who suffer constipation problems should drink at least eight glasses of water every day. Stay away from fizzy drinks and caffeine as these can dehydrate the body. IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) can also cause constipation. IBS is also known as ‘spastic colon’ and it can affect bowel movements in the form of constipation and diarrhea. IBS can be stress induced and can cause a person discomfort throughout their life, even though it is not a life-threatening condition.
Be cautious with the use of laxatives. The myth that an adult should have at least one bowel movement every day has led to the use, and abuse, of laxatives. With continued use of laxatives, the colon can become lazy by relying on the laxative to bring on bowel movements. Eventually the use of laxatives over a long period of time will interfere with the colon’s ability to function.
Ignoring the urge to pass a stool also leads to chronic constipation. If ignored often enough, this urge can completely disappear. People will often suppress the urge because they do not want to use a public toilet due to its unhygienic state. Children will also often ignore the urge to pass a stool if they are in an unfamiliar environment, or simply because they do not want to interrupt an enjoyable activity.
Chronic constipation is also known as functional constipation. People who suffer with functional constipation do not respond to conventional treatments. Functional constipation is often caused by a physical problem, for example, the muscles and nerves in the colon, anus or rectum may not be functioning correctly. Functional constipation is therefore also referred to as anorectal dysfunction because the muscles that allow a stool to be passed are dysfunctional. If a person feels the urge to pass a stool, but experiences difficulty or pain in following through, the problem may be due to a pelvic dysfunction.
In cases of functional constipation, the treatment used is called biofeedback training. Sensors and electrodes, attached to the patient’s body, provide feedback on the patient’s physical condition, i.e. body temperature, brain function, heart rate and muscle tension. This information is used to help the patient make changes in their lifestyle. Biofeedback training has been successful in the treatment of chronic constipation.
Scientific tests for the treatment of chronic constipation have revealed excellent results, the most exciting being the development of drugs that react directly on the colon, to either inhibit or stimulate the muscles to enable healthy bowel movements. These drugs are considered to be a major breakthrough in the treatment of chronic constipation and, while they are still in the stages of trial, they will be available in the very near future.
As with most medical conditions, prevention is better than cure. To prevent constipation, occasional or chronic we need to follow certain steps.