Constipation: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Constipation is a condition of the digestive system where an individual has hard feces that are difficult to expel. In most cases, this occurs because the colon has absorbed too much water from the food that is in the colon.

The slower the food moves through the digestive tract, the more water the colon will absorb from it. Consequently, the feces become dry and hard.

When this happens, emptying the bowels can become very painful.

This article will cover the main causes of constipation and how it can be treated and prevented.

Fast facts on constipation

Here are some key points about constipation. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Constipation generally occurs because too much water is absorbed from food

Causes of constipation include physical inactivity, certain medications, and aging

Some cases of constipation can be relieved by lifestyle changes

Laxatives should only be used as a last resort

Symptoms

Man suffering with constipation
A diet that contains a good quantity of fiber helps prevent constipation.

The main symptoms of constipation are increased difficulty and straining when passing stools.

Passing fewer stools than usual can be a sign of constipation.

Other symptoms include:

stomach ache

stomach cramps

feeling bloated and nauseous

losing appetite

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Causes

Constipation happens when the colon absorbs too much water. This can occur if the muscles in the colon are contracting slowly or poorly, causing the stool to move too slowly and lose more water.

These are the most common causes of constipation:

1) Lack of fiber in the diet

People whose diets include a good quantity of fiber are significantly less likely to suffer from constipation.

It is important to consume foods rich in fiber such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Fiber promotes bowel movements and prevents constipation.

Foods that are low in fiber include high-fat foods, such as cheese, meat, and eggs.

2) Physical inactivity

Constipation can occur if someone becomes too physically inactive. This is especially the case in older adults.

For individuals who have been bedridden for a long time, perhaps for several days or weeks, their risk of having constipation is significantly increased. Experts are not sure why. Some believe that physical activity keeps the metabolism high, making the processes in the body happen more rapidly.

Older adults tend to have a more sedentary life compared with younger people and are therefore at higher risk of constipation. Physically active people are much less likely to become constipated than inactive people.

3) Medications

The most common medications to cause constipation are:

narcotic (opioid) pain drugs including codeine (Tylenol), oxycodone (Percocet), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid)

antidepressants including amitriptyline (Elavil) and imipramine (Tofranil)

anticonvulsants including phenytoin (Dilantin) and carbamazepine (Tegretol) iron supplements

calcium channel blocking drugs including diltiazem (Cardizem) and nifedipine (Procardia)

aluminum-containing antacids including Amphojel and Basaljel

diuretics including chlorothiazide (Diuril)

4) Milk

Some people become constipated when they consume milk and dairy products.

5) Irritable bowel syndrome

People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) get constipation much more frequently, compared with the rest of the population.

6) Pregnancy

Pregnancy brings about hormonal changes that can make a woman more susceptible to constipation. Also, the uterus may compress the intestine, slowing down the passage of food.

7) Aging

As a person gets older, the metabolism slows down, resulting in less intestinal activity. The muscles in the digestive tract do not work as well as they used to.

8) Changes in routine

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