What is constipation?
Constipation is an uncomfortable condition that results either from waste moving too slowly through the digestive system, or from an inability to pass stool from the rectum. The result is stool that is hard and dry, or painful to pass, or infrequency of bowel movements. Many people with constipation experience a combination of these signs.
Constipation happens to almost everyone at some point, and it is generally harmless. However, some people experience chronic constipation – fewer than three bowel movements a week for a period of several weeks or longer – that prevents them from being able to live a normal life.
Chronic constipation is often a symptom of an underlying medical condition, but the cause is not always found.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of constipation may vary slightly from person to person, but most people who are affected experience some or all of the following:
- Fewer than three bowel movements per week
- Feeling as if the rectum is blocked, resulting in the prevention of bowel movements
- Passing little or no stool in spite of straining
- Stool that is hard or lumpy
- Needing to physically manipulate the abdomen or rectum in order to pass stool
- Feeling as if the rectum is never completely emptied
Why does it happen?
Constipation can result from a number of things, including the following:
- A blocked colon or rectum. Blockages can slow or hinder the movement of waste. Possible causes include obstruction, narrowing of the colon or rectum, colon or rectal cancer or rectocele, a condition in which the rectum bulges through the vaginal wall.
- Neurological problems. Certain conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, stroke, spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s disease, can affect the way the muscles in the colon and rectum contract.
- Problems with pelvic muscles. If the pelvic muscles are weakened or damaged, the individual may experience difficulty with the muscular contraction and relaxation required for successful bowel movements.
- Hormonal imbalances. Since hormones are a key part of maintaining the correct balance of fluids in the body, conditions that affect the hormones can result in constipation. These conditions include diabetes, an underactive or overactive thyroid, and pregnancy. Some medications that alter hormonal balances, such as some birth control pills and hormone replacement treatments, can also lead to constipation.