Introduction to Constipation
Constipation is when you are unable to pass stools regularly and/or when you are unable to empty your bowels completely.
What is Constipation?
Constipation is a very common condition that can affect anyone of any age. It is when you are unable to pass stools regularly and/or when you are unable to empty your bowels completely.
Stools are commonly hard and lumps and can be of varying size. Each patient may have constipation for a different reason and it affects people in different ways. Some can experience very severe constipation and it can become a chronic problem which can cause a lot of problems and discomfort.
Constipation is twice as common in women than men and affects all ages of the population.
What causes Constipation?
There are many causes of constipation and it occurs when stools remain in the colon for longer than they should. The large intestines role is to absorb water from stools, which is why stools are usually formed and not liquid (like in diarrhoea). As the stools in constipation are not expelled as frequently, they reside in the large intestine for longer and larger amounts of water are absorbed from them. This causes the stools to be dry and sometimes hard.
An unbalanced and unhealthy diet can cause constipation and you may be referred to a dietitian to discuss a change in diet. Dehydration, illness, lack of exercise, infections and psychiatric conditions can also cause constipation. Certain medications (especially some opioid painkillers such as codeine phosphate and morphine, diuretics, antidepressants, antiepileptics, supplements) can slow down the motility of the bowels, causing constipation. Constipation is of higher prevalence in pregnant women due to a change in the hormones circulating in the body.
Rarer and more serious causes of chronic constipation are ruled out by your doctor through a series of investigations.
What are the symptoms of Constipation?
Patients complain of difficulty passing stools. The frequency at which they go the toilet successfully is lower than their normal rate or lower than is expected for their population group. The failure of passing stools can lead to a build up of faeces in the bowels, causing aching and discomfort, bloating, cramps, nausea and loss of appetite.
Constipation may be caused by other conditions which can cause symptoms such as bleeding and passing of mucus, tiredness and unintentional weight loss. You should inform your doctor if you experience any other symptoms.
Children and babies may suffer from constipation and may be unable to communicate their problems. Parents needs to be aware of the symptoms and discuss management with their child’s doctor.
How is Constipation treated?
The treatment of constipation varies depending on the cause and chronicity of the condition. Dietitians, therapists, pharmacists and other specialists may be involved in your care. In long-standing constipation, patients undergo a series of investigations to rule out serious causes. If a cause of constipation is found, this condition/disease is treated and managed. The constipation should resolve as a result of this.
When no cause can be found, the management involves lifestyle advice, education and certain medications called laxatives. There are different types of laxatives and your doctor can change these if you experience any side effects or if they are not effective in your case. Sometimes stools can become ‘impacted’ within the bowel and obstruct the rectum, which can cause uncontrollable ‘overflow diarrhoea’. If this occurs, inform your doctor to receive treatment to clear your bowel.