Infrequent bowel movements or stools that are difficult to pass are aspects of the common condition constipation. Typically, an individual struggling with constipation strains to pass bowel movements and has a severely reduced amount of bowel movements per week, often going several days between passing stools. There is no set standard of healthy bowel movements. The frequency of bowel movements varies person to person from several times a day to several times a week.
Constipation is defined as the presence of at least two of the following symptoms for a time span of at least three months:
- Straining during bowel movements
- Hardening of stools
- Incomplete evacuation
- Less than two bowel movements per week
Dietary factors such as low fiber intake and dehydration have a large role in initiating constipation. Other factors that influence constipation include a lack of physical activity, poor bowel habits and even the use of certain medications. Medical conditions such as diabetes, colorectal cancer and hypothyroidism also impact constipation.
Other influential factors that may lead to constipation include:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Eating disorders
- Large consumption of dairy products
- Use of pain medications, narcotics, antidepressants and iron pills
- Overuse of laxatives
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
In addition to the definitional symptom of difficulty passing bowel movements, constipation may also cause a swollen abdomen or overall abdominal pain and vomiting.
Most patients that experience constipation are successfully treated with the use of fiber supplements and laxatives that are available over the counter at any pharmacy or food store. For some patients, however, constipation is a sign to a larger, more serious medical problem such as colon cancer. If your constipation is a long term problem that is not relieved by simple home remedies your physician may recommend a colonoscopy. Other than a colonoscopy, your physician may recommend a blood test to evaluate your hormone levels or a barium study to examine your digestion process and ensure that there is no obstruction in your colon. If your constipation is a symptom of a more serious condition such as the presence of polyps or colon cancer early detection and treatment is incredibly important.
Only your physician can determine if your constipation is present due to lifestyle habits such as diet and lack of exercise or if it may be related to a larger condition that would require a colonoscopy.