Constipation: signs, symptoms, & possible related conditions

April 17, 2024


Constipation is a term that people sometimes use casually, but do they know if they are actually experiencing this gastrointestinal issue?

The technical definition of constipation is having fewer than three bowel movements a week. But the norm for each individual can vary widely from having a bowel movement several times a day to only going one or two times a week. Whatever your bowel movement pattern is, it’s unique to you, and as long as you don’t get too far away from that pattern, there may not be any reason to be concerned about constipation. 

So what issues can pop up, and when should you be concerned?

How & why constipation occurs

As food moves through your digestive tract normally, your body absorbs nutrients. The partially digested food (waste) that remains moves from the small intestine to the large intestine, which is also called the colon. The colon absorbs water from this waste, which creates a solid matter called stool. 

If you experience constipation, food may move too slowly through the digestive tract. This gives the colon more time – too much time – to absorb water from the waste. The stool becomes dry, hard, and difficult to pass.

Generally speaking, the longer time period between each of your bowel movements, the more difficult it will likely be to pass the stool. Here are a few key features that we usually see in a patient who is experiencing constipation:

  • Dry, hard stool
  • Bowel movement is painful, and stools are difficult to pass
  • Feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowels

If you experience any of these issues due to constipation, you are not alone. Constipation is one of the most frequent gastrointestinal complaints in the United States. People of all ages can have an occasional bout of constipation, but sometimes people may experience chronic constipation. It’s more likely in these situations:

  • Older age. Older people tend to be less active. They typically have a slower metabolism and less muscle contraction strength along their digestive tract.
  • Being a woman, especially while pregnant and after childbirth. Changes in a woman’s hormones during and after pregnancy can make constipation more common. The baby inside the womb may compress the intestines, which can also slow down the passage of stool.
  • Not eating enough high-fiber foods. High-fiber foods keep everything moving through the digestive system.

When constipation may be more concerning

There are some complications that may occur if you don’t have soft, regular bowel movements, including:

  • Hemorrhoids -- These are swollen, inflamed veins in your rectum.
  • Anal fissures -- These are tears in the lining of your anus caused by hardened stool trying to pass through.
  • Diverticulitis -- An infection in pouches that sometimes form off the colon wall from stool that has become trapped and infected. 
  • Fecal impaction -- This is a pile-up of too much stool in the rectum and anus.

We commonly treat these conditions at Alabama Colon & Rectal Institute, but you can go a long way in eliminating them by doing all you can to keep your bowels healthy and moving. 

Another concern with constipation is that while it may simply be a sign of slow bowels, it can also be a symptom of serious anal and rectal disorders and diseases. These may include colorectal cancer, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or diverticular disease. Especially in situations when constipation is recurring or chronic, it is very important that you see your doctor to rule out these conditions or catch them if you are in the early stages.

Lifestyle changes to fight constipation

Again, making sure you are not constipated can be a first line of defense in eliminating or reducing colorectal diseases and disorders. To avoid constipation or if you think are exhibiting symptoms, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Eat plenty of healthy, high fiber foods.
  2. Drink plenty of water.
  3. Stay active, and exercise regularly. 
  4. Don’t eat or drink too much dairy.
  5. Try to eliminate as much stress from your life as possible. 
  6. If you feel the urge to have a bowel movement, don’t fight it. 
  7. Continue to follow the above tips even when out of your regular routine, such as when you are on vacation.

If you have any concerns related to constipation, let us know!

Alabama Colon & Rectal Institute specializes in diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus. Our free-standing practice located in Birmingham, Alabama, includes three doctors known regionally for their expertise. Visit our website for more information, give us a call to make an appointment at (205) 458-5000, or email us at [email protected].  

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