gastrointestinal conditions

Chronic Constipation

One of the most common gastrointestinal complaints is chronic constipation. It affects up to 20 percent of the U.S. population.

There is a wide range of what is normal for bowel movements—from three to 21 bowel movements per week. Occasional constipation is also normal. But if constipation lasts more than three weeks, you may have a chronic condition.

Chronic constipation may mean you’re not passing bowel movements frequently enough. The term also includes hard, small stools that are difficult to pass. Some people have the feeling of fullness or urgency of constipation even when their bowel movements are regular.

Your intestines remove excess fluid as your food moves through and becomes your stools movements. When the balance of solid waste and fluid gets disturbed, you can get constipation.

Conditions That Can Cause Constipation

Conditions that cause changes to certain hormone levels can cause a lack of fluid that makes stools hard in texture and hard to pass. These conditions include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid and parathyroid disorders

Sometimes a physical blockage makes it difficult to pass bowel movements. Blockages can be caused by injuries to or hernias of the rectum or anus, narrowing of the colon, or even tumors.

The process of moving stools through your bowels requires coordination of your muscles. Because muscles are vital to the process of creating and eliminating bowel movements, neurological problems can also cause chronic constipation. These problems include:

  • Spinal cord injury
  • Strokes
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis

Diagnosing the Cause of Constipation

Your doctor will need to review your health history as well as perform a physical exam in order to help you figure out what’s causing your constipation. Blood and stool tests may also reveal the source of your discomfort.

Depending on what your exam reveals, your doctor may suggest imaging procedures like colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy. These procedures give your doctor a firsthand view inside your intestines and a way to take small tissue samples, called biopsies.

Treatment for Constipation

The cause of your constipation will direct how it should be treated. Often this means you and your doctor will make a plan to treat the underlying condition that’s causing your discomfort.

You may also find it helpful to add water and fiber to your diet to soften your stools and improve regularity. Allowing plenty of time to relax while you relieve yourself can help, and regular exercise is important too.

Though most of us experience a little constipation now and then, chronic constipation shouldn’t be ignored. Your gastroenterologist will help you find the cause of your discomfort and guide you toward a solution.