What is chronic constipation?
Chronic constipation can usually be categorized as experiencing constipation for several months or longer. Constipation presents itself differently for each person, but constipation usually means infrequent bowel movements (less than three per week), straining during bowel movements or difficulty passing stool. For many people, constipation goes away after a week or two. However, if you experience it for months, you may have chronic—meaning consistent or recurring—constipation and should see your doctor.
How do I get diagnosed?
First, your doctor will go through your medical history and perform a physical exam. You may need to undergo tests to rule out other possible conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease. Other diagnostic tests performed for identifying chronic constipation include a colonoscopy to provide an internal view of the colon, a colonic transit study to see how quickly food moves through your system, or X-rays. Bloodwork and stool tests may also be required to analyze any inflammation or bacteria.
Related from the American Gastroenterological Association: Questions to Ask About a High-Quality Colonoscopy
How did I get it?
The cause for developing chronic constipation isn’t always clear. It can often be several contributing factors. Some possible causes include certain medications, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle and nerve damage to the colon or rectum area, cancer, nutritional deficiencies and older age. Your tests and medical exam by your doctor should be able to pinpoint the causes.
What are the common symptoms?
Many people have constipation without realizing it because their symptoms vary so much. Common symptoms include stool changes, bloating, gas, decreased appetite, fatigue and abdominal discomfort. Keep track of your symptoms and share them with your doctor.
Are there any complications?
Constipation rarely leads to life-threatening complications. However, there are some risks to be aware of, such as hemorrhoids caused by swollen veins around the anus, anal fissures from tearing the skin around the anus, and rectal prolapse from stretching out the anus. Express your concerns with your doctor and talk through the risks.
What are my treatment options?
A variety of supplements and medications, such as stool softeners or laxatives, are used to treat constipation. Diet and lifestyle modifications also play an important role. Speak to your doctor about your options and what works best for you and your body.
Do I need to change my diet?
You may want to incorporate certain foods and avoid others. High-fat foods can be harder for the body to digest and absorb. However, high-fiber foods are essential for stimulating the intestines and bowel movements. Other foods that can help kick start your intestines are apples, prunes, fermented foods and lentils. On the other hand, you may want to pass on red meat, processed foods and dairy—these might plug you up more. Always drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and help soften stools. Consult your doctor before making any dietary changes.
Are there other lifestyle changes needed?
Try incorporating some level of exercise into your day. Even a long walk can help relax the smooth muscles of the colon to loosen your bowels. Find an outlet to fight anxiety and stress, which can keep you tense, such as painting or meditating.
Can I get better?
By making the appropriate diet and lifestyle changes and following a treatment regimen, chronic constipation is manageable. Symptoms usually improve over time. Most patients are able to live a normal, healthy life.
How often do I need to see my doctor?
This depends on the doctor and the patient. In the beginning, patients may need to see their doctor more frequently until their constipation is well managed. There is a lot of trial and error when figuring out the right course of treatment. Once constipation is controlled, patients most likely won’t see their doctor as often but will still have follow-ups when needed.