Constipation is the infrequent passage of small amounts of hard, dry bowel movements, usually fewer than three times a week. Some individuals who are constipated find it painful to have a bowel movement and often experience straining, bloating, and the sensation of a full bowel.
The colon (part of the large intestine) absorbs water from food as it moves through the colon. The colon forms waste products, or stool, from this material. Muscle contractions in the colon then push the stool toward the rectum (final part of the large intestine). The stool is normally solid by the time it reaches the rectum, because most of the water has been absorbed back into the body.
Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. Almost everyone experiences constipation at some point in their life, and most periods of constipation are temporary, self-treatable, and not serious health issues. Understanding the causes, prevention, and treatment of constipation will help most individuals find relief.
Common causes of constipation include prescription medications, hormonal changes, bowel habits, diet, dehydration (lack of sufficient water), lack of exercise, laxatives, diseases such as colon cancer and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and stress.
Bowel movements are different for each individual, depending on the body, what the person eats and drinks, and the amount of exercise. Bowel movements do not have to occur daily. Normal stool elimination may range from three times a day to three times a week.
Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal (dealing with the digestive tract) complaints in the United States. More than 4 million Americans have frequent constipation, accounting for 2.5 million physician visits a year. Constipation most often occurs in women (during hormonal changes, pregnancy, and childbirth), and in adults ages 65 and older.
It is reported that 12% of people worldwide suffer from constipation. The prevalence of childhood constipation in the general population worldwide ranges from 0.7 to 29.6%.
The number of bowel movements generally decreases with age. Approximately 95% of adults have what is considered "normal" bowel movements - between three and 21 times per week. The most common pattern is one bowel movement a day, but this pattern occurs in less than 50% of people. Most people in the U.S. have irregular bowel movements and do not have bowel movements every day or the same number of bowel movements each day.
Most cases of constipation can be self-treated with over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, around $725 million is spent on laxative products each year in the U.S. However, the overuse of laxatives may also cause constipation along with other problems such as fluid imbalances and nutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiencies.
Constipation can also alternate with diarrhea in some cases. This pattern is more commonly associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Fecal impaction (a condition in which stool hardens in the rectum and prevents the passage of any stool) is when constipation becomes a serious condition.
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