What is constipation?
Constipation is a symptom that has different meanings to different individuals. Most commonly, it refers to infrequent bowel movements, but it may also refer to a decrease in the volume or weight of stool, the need to strain to have a movement, a sense of incomplete evacuation, or the need for enemas, suppositories or laxatives in order to maintain regularity.
For most people, it is normal for bowel movements to occur from three times a day to three times a week; other people may go a week or more without experiencing discomfort or harmful effects. Normal bowel habits are affected by diet. The average American diet includes 12 to 15 grams of fiber per day, although 25 to 30 grams of fiber and about 60 to 80 ounces of fluid daily are recommended for proper bowel function. Exercise is also beneficial to proper function of the colon.
About 80 percent of people suffer from constipation at some time during their lives, and brief periods of constipation are normal. Constipation may be diagnosed if bowel movements occur fewer than three times weekly on an ongoing basis. Widespread beliefs, such as the assumption that everyone should have a movement at least once each day, have led to overuse and abuse of laxatives.
How is constipation treated?
The vast majority of patients with constipation are successfully treated by adding high fiber foods like bran, shredded wheat, whole grain breads and certain fruits and vegetables to the diet, along with increased fluids. Your physician may also recommend lifestyle changes. Fiber supplements containing indigestible vegetable fiber, such as bran, are often recommended and may provide many benefits in addition to relief of constipation. They may help to lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of developing colon polyps and cancer, and help prevent symptomatic hemorrhoids.
Fiber supplements may take several weeks, possibly months, to reach full effectiveness, but they are neither harmful nor habit forming, as some stimulant laxatives may become with overuse or abuse. Other types of laxatives, enemas or suppositories should be used only when recommended and monitored by your colon and rectal surgeon.
In rare circumstances are surgical procedures necessary to treat constipation. Your colon and rectal surgeon can discuss these options with you in greater detail to determine the best treatment for you.