Constipation is a common complaint that will affect many people during their lifetime. While it's not usually a serious condition, it can cause people to feel sluggish and uncomfortable.
Although it can affect anyone, constipation is common in the elderly and during pregnancy. Even children experience constipation, particularly around the time of toilet training.
What is constipation?
Constipation occurs when the stools become hard and difficult to pass and bowel motions are less frequent than normal. This can lead to a need to push or strain, and a feeling of incomplete evacuation afterwards.
Not everyone has a bowel motion every day; 'normal' can range from up to three times per day to three times per week. It is the change from this normal pattern that is important.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
Symptoms of constipation include:
- Needing to open the bowels less often than usual
- Hard, dry stools that may be painful to pass
- Straining when passing a bowel movement
- Feeling that the bowel hasn't emptied fully after a movement
- Bloated abdomen
- Abdominal cramps
What are some common causes?
A number of factors can contribute to constipation.
Common lifestyle causes include:
- Low fibre or fluid intake
- Lack of regular exercise
- Ignoring the urge to go
- Change in routine or diet
Some medications can also cause constipation as a side effect:
- Iron supplements
- Opioid pain killers
- Some antidepressants
Occasionally, constipation may be a symptom of another problem. It's important to speak to your healthcare professional if your constipation persists.
How can you treat constipation?
There are several lifestyle changes you can make to help manage constipation:
- Eat a well-balanced diet high in fibre, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereal to add bulk to your stool and help you stay regular
- Drink plenty of water - for adults, aim to drink at least 2L of fluid a day
- Exercise regularly
- Try to maintain a regular toilet time; going in the morning or soon after a meal when the bowel is most active can help
- Don't ignore the urge to use the toilet
Which constipation treatments can help?
If lifestyle changes don't work well, short-term use of a laxative may be required with the goal of restoring a normal bowel habit. There are different types of laxatives and they work in slightly different ways.
The four main groups are:
- Bulk-forming laxatives (fibre supplements) to add bulk to the stools
- Stimulant laxatives to stimulate and push the stools out
- Osmotic laxatives to draw water into the stool
- Stool softener laxatives to soften a hard stool, making it easier to pass
Before seeking treatment, it is a good idea to discuss with your doctor or pharmacist first on how best to manage your constipation.
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