In medical terms, if a person is passing stools less than 3 times a week, he/she is said to be suffering from constipation. General definition of constipation is ‘infrequent bowel movements or difficulty in passing stools’. If a person has been having this condition for quite some time, he/she is said to be suffering from ‘Chronic constipation’.
In reality, how frequently a person passes stools in a day and over a week varies from body to body. Some may visit the rest room more than once in a day and some just once in a couple of days. But if the rhythm changes and the frequency reduces below three times a week, then he/she must see a urologist or a urogynecologist to diagnose the underlying cause of the problem. The longer the gap between passing stools, the harder the stools get inside the body because, the colon absorbs the water from the waste the body has generated and it becomes even more difficult to pass them.
A brief para on how food gets digested in a human body
Digestion starts from the mouth with chewing the food. The food gets into the stomach where the digestion process continues and digested food is sent into the small intestines. The small intestines absorb all the vitamins, minerals etc the food has and pushes the waste into the large intestine, the colon. As you can see in the picture, the left side large intestine is called the ‘ascending colon’ and the right side part is called ‘descending colon’. The waste matter after digestion passes up from the ascending colon, moves to the descending colon and is sent out through the rectum and anus.
For any reason (that we will see later), if the passage of the waste matter through colon is slowed, colon absorbs more water content from it, there by slowing down the movement even further.
What causes constipation in men and women?
Constipation is a very common condition. Every individual during their life time faces this condition occasionally and it resolves on it’s own usually. Drinking less water or fluids during the day for few days may also lead to constipation. But, if the person has been constipated for a good amount of time, it is called chronic constipation and following may be few reasons why it happens:
- Old Age – As age catches up, the metabolism slows down, strength of muscles reduces (around the digestive track). This can lead to constipation.
- Pregnancy in women – A lot of squeezing of organs takes place during the pregnancy of a woman as the baby grows inside her. Many muscles and tissues are hurt during pregnancy and delivery. The growing baby inside the woman squeezes the size of the colon and that leads to slower movement of stools outside the body.
To know how the pelvis region of a woman changes during pregnancy and child birth, please read the following article.
- Consuming less fiber rich foods – Fiber helps moving of food across the digestive system. Consuming less amount of fiber makes the movement slower.
- Medication – Certain medicines also lead to constipation. Your doctor should have informed you about this side effect. If not, you should call up your doctor to find out if the medicines are the cause. He/she may put you on different medicines or let you finish the course after which your constipation problem should go away.
- Neurological condition – Due to any injury in the brain or the spinal cord, the communication between the brain and lower part of the body may not be intact and that can lead to constipation.
- Changes in lifestyle – If you start traveling a lot, eating at different times, lack of good night sleep or sleeping at varying times can also lead to changes in bowel movements or constipation.
- Consuming large amounts of milk and/or cheese can cause constipation in some people.
- Stress – A leading reason for several hundreds of medical conditions and constipation is one of them.
- Stopping yourself from visiting the rest room when your body calls for it. This should not turn into a habit as it can lead to constipation.
Symptoms of constipation
- Passing stools fewer than 3 times a week
- Difficulty in passing stools because the stool gets hard and lumpy
- Having to put more pressure in passing the stools
- A feeling that something is obstructing you at the bottom from letting the stool go out
- Feeling that you haven’t emptied your bowels completely
- Need to empty your bowels by manually pressing your lower abdomen and using finger to get the stool out.
What happens if constipation is not treated?
- When the hardened and lumpy stool is passing through your rectum (while passing them out), it can tear the lining of the anus leading to Anal Fissure.
- The veins in the rectum can swell and get inflamed leading to piles/hemorrhoids.
- Diverticulitis – When the stool gets trapped in the colon, the walls of the colon get infected (here and there). Such a condition is called ‘Diverticulitis’.
- Faecal Impaction – Too much of poop can get piled up in the rectum and anus. This can be seen in an x-ray.
- The muscles in the pelvic floor can get damaged due to the excess pressure that the person has to put on them to empty the bowels. Occasional pressure is ok but in chronic constipation conditions, continuous pressure on the pelvic muscles can make them weak. This leads into a cyclic effect that worsens with time – weaker muscles will not be able to push the stool out.
How to prevent constipation?
- Drink lot of water and fluids. Dehydration causes constipation.
- Eat lot of fiber rich foods – fruits and vegetables. When you are starting solid foods for your baby, make sure to include lot of fiber.
- Do not ignore when you body tells you to visit the rest room to empty your bowels.
- Be active, keep working out regularly.
- Have a fixed time to visit rest room. Your body’s biological clock can be set with practice.
- Manage stress. Figure out the reason for the stress, visit a therapist if that is the reason.