Chronic constipation refers to infrequent bowel movements or inability to pass stools that persists for several weeks or longer. Constipation is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. Though occasional constipation is very common, some people experience chronic constipation that can interfere with their ability to function normally.
Signs and symptoms of chronic constipation include:
- Passing fewer than three stools per week
- Having lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to have bowel movements
Constipation most commonly occurs when stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract, causing it to become hard and dry. Dehydration and some medications can sometimes cause occasional constipation.
Chronic constipation may be caused by various digestive conditions, including Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and colon cancer. Sometimes, it can be the result of an intestinal obstruction or blockage. Conditions that affect fluid balance, including diabetes, may also cause constipation.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose chronic constipation include:
- Sigmoidoscopy – a procedure used to examine the rectum and lower colon
- Colonoscopy – this enables your doctor to examine the entire colon
- Colonic transit study – a procedure in which you swallow capsule containing markers that monitor your intestinal function over several days
Treatment for chronic constipation usually begins with diet and lifestyle changes, including increasing fiber intake, increasing fluid (water) intake and exercising most days of the week.
If constipation does not improve with these changes alone, your physician may recommend medications like fiber supplements or stool softeners. Other prescriptions may also be recommended to draw water into your intestines.
Frequently Asked Questions about Constipation
How often should I move my bowels?
Most people move their bowels anywhere from three times a day to three times a week.
Is it normal to experience constipation?
Anyone can have the occasional bout of constipation, in which they do not pass stool for a day or have trouble passing stool now and then.
How do doctors define constipation?
Doctors typically define constipation as having fewer than three bowel movements per week.
When is constipation a serious condition?
Constipation may be a serious issue if you have not passed stool in three or more days, as the longer stool sits in the colon, the harder it becomes to pass.
What are the signs of chronic constipation?
Signs of chronic constipation include:
- Passing stool fewer than times a week
- Straining during bowel movements
- Hard or lumpy stools
- Feeling like there is a blockage in the rectum that is holding back your bowel movements
- Feeling as if your rectum is never completely empty, even after you have a bowel movement
- Having to aid your bowel movements manually, such as using a finger to remove the stool
What causes constipation?
A number of factors can cause stool to become hard and dry enough to result in constipation. Certain foods, such as alcohol, processed grains, milk and dairy products, red meat, and fried or fast foods. Lack of dietary fiber and exercise can also cause constipation.
Dehydration can make constipation worse, as it prevents the digestive system from getting enough water to act as a lubricant. Physical blockages in the colon can cause constipation, as can damage to the nerves or muscles that control the colon or rectum. Diabetes, pregnancy and other conditions that alter the balance of hormones can also affect constipation.
Can I be constipated if I am having watery stools?
Yes! Severe constipation can cause a blockage in your bowel. Watery stool can leak around the blockage to cause diarrhea.
How can I treat constipation at home?
You can increase your intake of dietary fiber by eating more beans, broccoli, berries, avocados, whole grains, apples and dried fruit. You may also gain relief by taking over-the-counter fiber supplements. Be sure to drink more water, as your body uses water as a natural lubricant for facilitating bowel movements.
What should I do if home treatments for constipation do not work?
Your doctor can help you determine the underlying causes of your constipation, and help you develop a treatment plan.