Chronic constipation can be a warning sign for serious gastrointestinal disorders in adults. Constipation is the inability to have a bowel movement. A person may feel as if they need to have a bowel movement but spend unnecessary time just sitting on a toilet with no relief. This can lead to abdominal cramping, bloating and discomfort. It is reported that constipation contributes to nearly 2.5 million doctor visits a year, and the medications to relieve constipation can be quite costly.
Chronic constipation occurs when a bowel movement is unable to occur over the span of weeks or even longer. A person is diagnosed with constipation if they have fewer than three bowel movements a week. Chronic constipation can interfere with a person’s daily life and lead to excessive straining, which can lead to hemorrhoids or tears.
Recent study shows chronic constipation a warning sign for GI disorders
A recent study found that chronic constipation is a warning sign for gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. Lauren Gerson, M.D., from the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco said, “Patients presenting with chronic constipation symptoms may warrant additional workup, even in younger populations with no red flag symptoms, such as GI bleeding, anemia or weight loss.”
Although chronic constipation can be a warning sign of GI disorders, it is not recognized as a risk factor to increase the risk of GI disorders. The researchers report that 15 percent of Americans suffer from chronic constipation.
For the study, 12,838 individuals were followed for 24 months and treated for chronic constipation. They matched participants with control subjects for comparison. Chronic constipation was categorized as having two outpatients within 30 days of each other being diagnosed with constipation, one outpatient visit with a diagnosis of constipation, or one or more mentions of constipation on the patient’s medical record.
The risk for GI disorders were significantly higher in those with chronic constipation. Common GI disorders found were ischemic colitis, colorectal cancer, diverticulitis, or a composite of another disorder.
Although previous research showed a link between chronic constipation and GI disorders, this is the first time a link has been shown with such disorders as ischemic colitis or colorectal cancer.
Dr. Gerson concluded, “We went into this not expecting to find anything new, so it was kind of a surprise to us all. The association between diverticulitis and chronic constipation was not a surprise because the patients tend to be overweight and less active, but the cancer and the ischemic colitis were definitely a surprise.”
Long term effects of chronic constipation
In the short-term constipation can lead to discomfort, agitation and even frustration. In the long-term it can have negative effects on your health. For starters, when a bowel movement does occur the stool may be too large or too hard, which can lead to tears in the anal skin. This can be painful and you may even notice blood on the toilet paper.
If you use laxatives as a means to have bowel movements, over time it can make your stool sluggish or slow. The use of laxatives impairs the way your bowel movements occur on their own as they become accustomed to being prompted by laxatives. This can cause a vicious cycle; being on laxatives helps you go but then you are unable to go on your own, thus making you addicted to laxatives.
Furthermore, chronic constipation can lead to fecal impaction, which refers to a large mass of feces that blocks the rectum, causing it to stretch or enlarge until the muscle is not able to push it out. If this condition worsens, you may believe you have diarrhea because the stool that does come out is lose and wet. This is not diarrhea but the feces that leaks from the impaction. This can occur when constipation is quite severe and high levels of laxatives are required to remove the mass.
Signs and symptoms of chronic constipation
We all have days when we don’t go as often as normal or we have to push a little harder. Although that is a sign of constipation, it is not a strong indicator of chronic constipation. Signs and symptoms of chronic constipation include:
- Passing fewer than three stools a week
- Having lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to pass a bowel movement
- Feeling a blockage in the rectum
- Swollen or painful abdomen
Causes of chronic constipation
There are numerous causes for chronic constipation including:
- Using antacid medications
- Changes in diet or daily activities
- Colon cancer
- Eating a lot of dairy products
- Eating disorders
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
- Being inactive
- Not consuming enough water or fiber – or consuming one without the other
- Overuse of laxatives
- Problems with nerves and muscles in the digestive system
- Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement
- Some medications like iron pills or antidepressants
- Under active thyroid
Lifestyle changes and treatment to manage chronic constipation
Taking laxatives may offer quick relief, but they can have negative side effects if used long term. The best form of treatment for chronic constipation is to make lifestyle changes because they are safer and can boost your overall health as well. Lifestyle changes and treatment to manage chronic constipation include:
- Increasing your fiber intake, but don’t forget to consume plenty of water or else the fiber can contribute to more constipation
- Increasing the amount of exercise you do
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Using the bathroom when the feeling arises – don’t hold in your bowels
- Reducing your intake of dairy products
- Checking your medications as a possible cause for constipation
If natural remedies are not successful, then you may be dealing with a more serious issue, and the chronic constipation is merely a symptom. Always speak to your doctor so they can run tests to determine what is really going on.