Constipation can be a pain in the bum, literally. It can be incredibly uncomfortable, but in the vast majority of cases it’s not life-threatening. If you suffer from constipation there is usually a reason and there are steps you can take to get things moving again.
What is constipation?
Constipation is the inability to poo frequently enough. If you are going to the toilet fewer than three times per week; have difficulty passing stool or straining when passing stool; if your stool is lumpy, dry, or hard it may mean you have constipation. This can cause you pain and cramping in the abdomen, bloatedness, nausea and/or a loss of appetite.
Depending on the severity of the problem, simple lifestyle changes can often resolve constipation, but for more severe cases there could be a blockage in the large intestine, in which case you may need medical attention.
Causes of constipation?
There can be many reasons for constipation. One of which is ignoring the urge to go the toilet. This causes the stool to get too hard and you’ll have trouble passing it. Other causes include;
Lack of dietary fibre results in harder, more compact stools, which take longer to pass through. Fibre helps move waste food through the bowel.
Lack of fluids can cause waste matter to dry out, making it harder to move through the bowel.
Lack of exercise can cause constipation because it causes the muscle contractions that move waste matter through the bowel to slow down.
The hormonal changes in pregnancy can cause constipation. This is also true of menopause and menstruation.
Stress can sometimes be the cause of constipation.
Ageing - the digestive system slows down with age and can be the cause of constipation.
Medicines, especially certain painkillers (e.g. codeine), iron tablets and some antacids (e.g. aluminium hydroxide) can cause constipation.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers often have constipation, sometimes alternating with diarrhoea.
What can you do about constipation?
Getting more exercise, eating more fibre, and drinking more water can help. Avoiding stress is easier said than done but stress itself can be helped with exercise. It can help, when on the toilet, to place your feet on a low platform, with your knees above hip level.
Laxatives can help in more extreme cases but you should not rely on these and use them only when you have made the lifestyle changes recommended above, as they can have severe adverse effects.
Should you see a doctor?
If you ignore constipation things could get much worse. It could result in rectal bleeding, which can be caused by straining, or an anal fissure, a small tear around the anus.
Untreated constipation can cause symptomatic haemorrhoids (piles), swollen, inflamed blood vessels in the anus or, in some cases, faecal impaction, which occurs when dried stool stagnates and collects in the rectum and anus, leading to a blockage.
Constipation is unlikely to be life-threatening but left untreated it can cause further problems and become even more painful or uncomfortable. Seeing a doctor if you experience severe discomfort or worsening symptoms despite the lifestyle changes suggested and may help prevent these further complications. Also, constipation can be the symptom of a more serious underlying condition, such as colorectal cancer, so it is wise to get it checked out. A doctor can help by prescribing a fibre supplement, a lubricant or stool softener.
We all experience constipation from time to time and in most cases, it will resolve itself if we adopt some lifestyle changes. Eating more fibre, drinking more water, and getting regular exercise can all help. What you shouldn’t do is ignore it. Constipation can be the underlying cause of more serious problems. Stay in tune with your body and notice when it isn’t getting rid of waste effectively; this is one of the ways your body tells you that something is wrong.