Constipation is a condition that involves difficulty in having a bowel movement or involves having stools (solid waste material from the body) that are dry and hard.
Normal bowel movement patterns vary from person to person. Some people move their bowels as often as after every meal. Other people may move their bowels every three days or so. Both of these patterns may be normal for the individual.
With constipation, a person feels discomfort and has irregular bowel movements. The difficulty comes from the dry, hard condition of the stool. Constipation may be associated with many medical illnesses.
Several factors can contribute to constipation, such as not eating enough fiber or drinking enough fluids, inactivity, or not developing regular toilet habits. Certain medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or hypothyroidism *
Constipation can occur when a person withholds stool and the intestines reabsorb the water in the stool, causing it to become harder. Withholding the stool can happen if a person is not comfortable having a bowel movement, for example, when traveling or if the toilet area is considered unsafe or unpleasant.
Although many people take laxatives (LAK-sa-tivs) for constipation, doctors warn that these should not be taken regularly because the intestines may become sluggish and dependent on the laxatives. Instead, it is recommended that people eat a diet that is rich in fiber. The Institute of Medicine recommends adults consume between 25 and 38 grams of fiber a day. Foods that are typically high in fiber include whole grains, such as bran or whole wheat, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Eating mostly foods that contain a lot of starch or sugar, as in cookies and cakes, does not give the body enough fiber for good digestion and proper elimination. Also, it is important to drink sufficient amounts of water.
In serious cases of constipation, a person may need to be examined by a doctor and possibly be given an enema (EN-e-ma), which is a process of putting fluid into the rectum to loosen the stool. The doctor also may prescribe medication to help the patient regain regular bowel habits.
For serious cases of constipation in children the doctor may recommend a habit-training program. In addition to being instructed about proper diet and increased water intake, medicine may be given to help develop regular toilet habits.
Most people can prevent constipation by following a regular routine for bowel movements. Here are some habits that help prevent constipation:
See also Diarrhea • Hemorrhoids • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
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* hypothyroidism (hi-po-THY-roydih-zum) is an impairment of the functioning of the thyroid gland that causes too little thyroid hormone to be produced by the body. Symptoms of hypothyroidism can include tiredness, paleness, dry skin, and in children, delayed growth and mental and sexual development.