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Ask The Doc: When Is Constipation An Emergency?

QUESTION: I SUFFER FROM CHRONIC CONSTIPATION, OFTEN GOING FOR SEVERAL DAYS WITHOUT HAVING A BOWEL MOVEMENT. IS THIS A HARMFUL? HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN CONSTIPATION IS SERIOUS, AND HOW LONG IS TOO LONG TO BE CONSTIPATED?

Answer: Anyone who has experienced constipation (and let’s face it – most of us have at some point or another) knows it can be an uncomfortable experience. Let’s start with a primer on what the symptoms of constipation are and what causes them to occur.

WHAT IS CONSTIPATION & PREVALENCE

Constipation is one of the most common digestive issues in the US. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, about 16 out of 100 adults have symptoms of constipation, and about 33 out of 100 adults ages 60 and older have symptoms of constipation. And, since much of the time constipation is not necessarily reported, these numbers may be much higher.

The main symptom of constipation is not being able to have a bowel movement. While everyone varies in their regularity, constipation is typically defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week. Other symptoms can include hard or lumpy stools, straining to have a bowel movement, feeling as though something is blocked in your rectum, pain when having a bowel movement, back pain, bloating, abdominal pain, and in some causes, can even cause nausea.

WHAT CAUSES CONSTIPATION?

For most people, constipation is temporary and is usually caused by lifestyle choices. An unbalanced diet with lots of meat, dairy or processed foods, drinking too little water, and not getting enough exercise can lead to constipation. But, constipation can also be caused by certain conditions. Some of these underlying conditions include:

  • Underactive thyroid
  • Diabetes
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Certain cancers
  • Stroke
  • Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury
  • Hypercalcemia
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Pregnancies
  • Taking certain medications

HOW TO FIX CONSTIPATION

Constipation is typically only temporary and can be remedied by making a few simple lifestyle changes. A diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fiber, and plenty of water can help keep you from becoming constipated (and can remedy the situation if you are). In addition, regular exercise, proactively managing stress and anxiety, and creating a regular schedule for bowel movements can help keep things moving.

HOW LONG IS TOO LONG TO BE CONSTIPATED?

While constipation is a very common condition, if it persists for longer than a few weeks, you should schedule an appointment to see your doctor. Chronic constipation can happen for several reasons, and may be caused by an underlying cause that should be addressed. Chronic constipation itself can also cause unwanted consequences if left for too long. Hemorrhoids, anal fissures, fecal impaction and rectal prolapse are all things that may develop if chronic constipation is not addressed.

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN CONSTIPATION IS SERIOUS?

As stated above, you should see your doctor if your constipation has lasted longer than a few weeks. Some other warning signs that you need to see a doctor right away are if, in addition to your constipation:

  • If you are experiencing intense abdominal pain
  • You feel nausea or are vomiting
  • You have unusual bloating
  • You see blood in your stool
  • Your stool is black or dark grey looking

If you experience any of the above symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about constipation and bowel health here.

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