Okay, admit it. You've probably been constipated at least once in your lifetime. It happens. You're not alone.
Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal problems in the United States. Constipation affects an estimated 15% of the population (some 42 million people) regardless of age, race or gender.
However, women and adults over 65 most often report experiencing constipation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Constipation can also be a common problem during pregnancy, following childbirth or surgery, or after taking medications to relieve pain from things such as a broken bone, tooth extraction, or back pain.
What is Constipation?
"While it's a common problem, different people have different definitions," says Robert Akbari, MD, a colorectal surgeon with Doylestown Health Colorectal Specialists. He is an expert in the surgical and non-surgical treatment of diseases of the colon, rectum and anus, with advanced training in the treatment of these diseases.
Definitions for constipation can include infrequent bowel movements, hard bowel movements or bloating. Infrequent usually means less than three bowel movements a week, although each person differs in how often they have bowel movements. It depends on what's normal for you.
"For me, what's more important is a new symptom versus something you're used to," says Dr. Akbari. "You may have had infrequent bowel movements for years, and that may be the way you're built. A new symptom is more concerning."
What Causes Constipation?
Common causes of constipation include:
- Diets low in fiber
- Certain medications
- Problems with the gastrointestinal tract
- Lack of physical activity
Not getting enough fiber is the most common cause of constipation. Most Americans eat only about 15 grams of fiber each day. The recommended amount is 25-30 grams per day.
Should I See a Doctor About Constipation?
If constipation has become an issue lasting more than a few weeks (generally speaking), it's time to talk to a healthcare professional. Tests, including colonoscopy, may be performed to make sure it's not a mechanical issue of the GI tract. Other tests, like X-ray studies, can also be done.
What Can I Do About Constipation?
The good news is that constipation can usually be managed medically, meaning without surgery.
"You can help treat constipation with common sense things such as diet, exercise and water intake. The more the better," Dr. Akbari says.
That means getting enough fiber, drinking enough fluids (preferably water, about 6-8 glasses a day) and getting enough exercise. "Remember, fiber and fluids go hand in hand," says Dr. Akbari.
Over-the-counter laxatives and stool softeners might also help. Some people fear abusing these products, using them too often and depending on them for regularity. "Stimulant laxatives are the ones to be most wary of," notes Dr. Akbari.
Physical therapy may also help. "Some people benefit from pelvic floor physical therapy, also known as biofeedback," says Dr. Akbari.
In rare cases, surgery can be beneficial for severe constipation.
About Doylestown Health Colorectal
Doylestown Health Colorectal Specialists provide expert assessment, diagnosis, and treatment for a wide range of disorders of the colon, rectum, anus and small intestine. Our board-certified physicians offer compassionate, personalized care, continuing patient education and state-of-the-art technology, using advanced colon and rectal surgery and minimally invasive robotic surgery techniques.