Constipation is a reduction in stool production, commonly defined as having less than three bowel movements in a week. This intestinal complaint is extremely common and is a symptom of an underlying medical problem. Usually the cause of the problem is very easily treated and often a visit to a general practitioner can provide a patient with relief. In some cases, this condition is a sign of a more serious problem and it may be necessary to see a gastroenterologist or surgeon for appropriate treatment.
Frequency of defecation is highly variable. Some people poop multiple times a day, while others may produce a bowel movement every two days or so. Generally, fewer than three bowel movements a week are a cause for concern. People with this condition commonly have hard, dry stool and may experience painful defecation. In addition, there is often a feeling of fullness and a need to defecate, without being able to do so.
The leading cause of constipation is poor diet. People who do not eat enough fiber or are receiving inadequate fluids can develop constipation, and changing the diet should address the issue. Some medications are also linked with this symptom. Changing medications may be an option, or a patient may be provided with a stool softener or some dietary recommendations to treat the condition, if it is necessary to stay on the medication.
More seriously, this problem can sometimes be a sign of a bowel obstruction preventing stool from passing through, such as a foreign object in the bowel or a kink in the bowel. It can also be associated with some diseases, such as dehydration, lupus, diabetes, and underlying gastrointestinal diseases. Stroke and paralysis can cause this symptom, as can using laxatives excessively, a problem sometimes seen in people with eating disorders. If the problem does not respond to conservative treatment, more aggressive medical evaluation may be recommended to see if there is a more serious medical issue going on.
Treatment usually starts with a patient interview and a physical examination, sometimes paired with X-rays to see what is happening inside the bowel. Based on this information, doctors can discuss medications, diets, and surgery, depending on the cause of the constipation. In some cases, impacted stool may need to be manually removed to address the issue, as sometimes seen when people try to withhold bowel movements and become constipated as a result. Clearing out the impacted feces may resolve the problem and allow the patient to defecate normally again.