Constipation: When Should You Be Concerned
Constipation or irregular bowel movement is a problem that can disrupt your daily activities, and actually be a sign of an underlying health condition. According to a 2018 gut health survey published by Abbott, the condition affects around 22% adult Indians.
There isn’t an universal definition for “normal” bowel movement, as bowel habits vary from person to person. Constipation is more of a symptom than a disease per se. If the food you eat is digested well and the unwanted components are expelled after your body absorbs the nutrients, you have normal bowel movements. Healthy stool can be a strong indicator of good health.
Age, food and water intake, physical activity, and a few other factors have a bearing on it.
What is constipation?
Constipation is defined as an irregular, infrequent or difficult evacuation of bowels. For the sake of medical diagnosis, less than three bowel movements in a week is considered symptoms of constipation and require intervention.
Food, after being digested, passes through the large intestine or colon, where water is absorbed from the residual food before passing on the rest as waste product or stool. Muscle contractions in the colon send the stool to the rectum to be excreted. By this time, most of the water is absorbed to make the stool solid.
When you feel constipated, the colon’s muscle contractions are sluggish, which moves the stool more slowly. This leads to excess water being absorbed from the stool and keeps the stool longer in the colon, making it hard and difficult to pass bowels.
Causes and symptoms
Several factors lead to irregular bowel movements.
- Poor dietary fibre intake
- Poor water intake leading to dehydration
- Lack of exercise
- Avoiding the urge of passing stool
- Lifestyle changes like travelling and pregnancy
- Medications such as iron supplements, antacids, diuretics, blood pressure and depression drugs
Some of the common symptoms of constipation are:
- Infrequent bowel movements that are fewer than three times a week
- Passing hard or dry pebble or pellet-shaped stool
- Strain or pain during passing stool
- Abdominal pain or bloating
- Feeling of incomplete evacuation
- Feeling of rectal blockage that interferes with bowel movement
Complications associated with constipation
Feeling occasionally constipated is common. But if the condition cannot be solved by making lifestyle changes and persists for a long time, it should be treated as chronic constipation that can lead to other complications.
1. Hemorrhoids: Straining to pass stool can lead to the swelling and inflammation of veins in and around your anus. It can result in pain and bleeding.
2. Anal fissure: Passing hard or large stool can make a tear in the anal tissue lining, causing bleeding and pain.
3. Fecal impaction: Chronic or long-term constipation can cause hardened stools to collect in your anus that cannot be expelled. This can lead to pain, swelling, bleeding, and might require medical attention.
4. Rectal prolapse: Straining during bowel movement can sometimes cause a part of your rectum to protrude from your anus.
Prevention and treatment
Making lifestyle changes such as improving your diet and engaging in physical activity is the easiest way to prevent and treat constipation. Consider making the following a part of your daily routine:
1. Incorporate a daily dietary fibre intake of 20-25g. This will help in the formation of soft and bulky stools and lower the risk of chronic constipation. Fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, beans, bread, and dried fruits such as apricots and figs, are rich in fibre.
2. Increase your water and fluid intake. Avoid the consumption of alcohol as it leads to dehydration.
3. Cut down on foods that are low in fibre content such as processed food, milk, cheese and meat products.
4. Never ignore the urge to pass stool. The longer the stool stays inside the colon and the rectum, the harder it becomes, making bowel movement a problem.
5. Staying active is important for overall well-being. Regular moderate exercise also helps regularize bowel movement.
6. Try training yourself to follow a schedule for bowel movement. Develop good bowel habits.
Chronic constipation is a condition that requires medical attention, so don’t be embarrassed about seeking help. Include high-fibre foods and lots of liquid in your diet and start exercising regularly. These will help you keep constipation at bay.
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