What is Constipation?
Constipation is a condition where three or fewer bowel movements occur within a week and with difficulty in passing stool. There may be an underlying cause that leads to constipation, although in some cases no cause can be found.
Is Constipation a Medical Emergency?
Sudden and recent onset constipation can be due to a medical emergency. However, long-standing constipation is not a medical emergency.
Causes Of Constipation
Several conditions and factors can result in constipation, and they may be as follows:
- Diet - Low fiber diet, low liquid intake
- Age - The elderly age group is more prone to constipation
- Gender - Women are more prone to constipation
- Sedentary Lifestyle
- Mental health conditions such as depression or eating disorders
- Certain Medications
- Endocrine problems like Hypothyroidism, Diabetes, etc.,
- Chronic kidney diseases
- Bowel obstruction
- Colorectal cancer
- Anal fissures
- Neurologic causes like Parkinson’s disease, Stroke, etc.,
- Psychological causes
- Congenital causes - Such as Hirschsprung’s disease in which nerves are missing from the intestine.
Signs & Symptoms Of Constipation
The following are the signs and symptoms that are seen along with constipation:
- Passing lesser than 3 bowel movements in a week
- Passing hard and lumpy stool
- Straining to pass stool
- The sensation of blockage or obstruction of the rectum, that seems to prevent the passage of stool
- The sensation of the incomplete passage of stool
- Needing manual intervention to remove stool from the rectum
- Some other complaints that may or may not always be present include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Pain on defecation
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Low back pain
- Inability to pass gas
The following investigations may be done to establish the underlying cause of constipation:
- Laboratory tests -
- CBP & ESR
- Thyroid function tests
- Serum Calcium levels
- Renal Function tests
- Fasting Blood Glucose
- Imaging tests -
- Diagnostic procedures -
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy
- Colonic Transit Study
- Anorectal Manometry
- Surface Anal Electromyography
- Defecography -
- X-ray Defecography
- MRI Defecography
- Balloon Expulsion testing
A diagnosis of the underlying cause of constipation is established based on the medical history, clinical evaluation, and results of the investigations done.
Constipation Treatment Options
Management of constipation depends on identifying the underlying cause and then treating it. Diet and lifestyle changes are usually recommended in addition to management of the underlying cause if any. Surgical intervention may be required if there is no response to conservative management.
Role of Diet/Exercise/Lifestyle Changes/Preventive Measures
Some measure that can help with the management may include:
- Eating a diet that is high in fiber
- Exercising and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle
- Paying attention to the urge for a bowel movement and not delaying responding to the urge
- Biofeedback training and exercises to strengthen the pelvic muscles
Some measures that can help in the prevention may include:
- Adding foods with high fiber content in regular meals
- Avoiding processed foods, dairy, and meat products
- Drinking plenty of fluids and staying hydrated
- Creating a regular schedule for bowel movements
- Managing stress
- Immediately responding to the urge to pass stool without holding back
Some of the complications include:
- Fecal impaction - Stool gets accumulated in the intestines
- Bowel obstruction
- Anal fissures - Large hard stool can lead to tearing of skin around the anus
- Hemorrhoids - Swollen veins around the anus may develop due to excessive straining while defecating
- Rectal prolapse
- Pelvic floor damage in women
- Urinary retention
- Ulceration or perforation
The prognosis for constipation is generally good, with most individuals responding well to diet and lifestyle changes, and some medical management.
When to contact the doctor or hospital/how to identify the emergency or complications?
It is advisable to seek medical attention if the signs and symptoms are noticed and the changes in bowel habits persist for more than a week.
Indications for hospitalization if required
Hospitalization is usually not required for constipation. It may only be required if there is an indication for surgical management of the condition.
Suggested clinical specialist/department to consult for this condition
Constipation will be attended by specialists from the Department of Gastroenterology.