Overview

Constipation is a decrease in the frequency of a person’s bowel movements, a change in the consistency of stools (resulting in small, hard stools), or a difficulty in a person’s ability to pass stools. Constipation is a fairly common complaint in older adults, and most people will experience constipation at some point. In many cases it is related to a person’s diet or daily routines, but constipation may also be a sign of a more serious disorder.

Causes: Diet

Constipation can be caused by a variety of factors. It often results from poor diet. It can be triggered by a diet that is low in fiber and high in fat or refined sugar. In the elderly, it is often triggered by a poor calorie diet. It can also be caused by not drinking enough fluids, or by drinking too much caffeine or alcohol (which causes a person to urinate more frequently, resulting in firmer stools). Constipation is common among travelers, who frequently eat unhealthy or unfamiliar foods and may not get enough fluids.

Causes: Daily Habits

Constipation can also be caused by a person’s daily habits. A person who frequently ignores the desire to move the bowels can inadvertently train the body to begin to ignore these signals, causing constipation. Lack of exercise can also cause constipation, and this is a common problem for the elderly.

Causes: Medications

Constipation is a common side effect of a variety of medications, which can disrupt the function of the digestive system and result in harder stools or slower movement of stool through the colon.

Causes: Physical

Constipation can also be caused by a wide variety of physical conditions. Pregnant women commonly experience constipation, because hormonal changes associated with pregnancy - along with a growing womb - can disrupt bowel movements. Constipation is also a common complaint of people who have conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. And finally, constipation can result from problems such as hemorrhoids, gallstones, pelvic floor hypertonicity disorder, intestinal cancer, rectal polyps, spinal cord or pelvic injury, and numerous other issues. Constipation can also be caused by a weakness in the wall between the vagina and rectum, which is called a rectocele.

Symptoms

Symptoms of constipation include cramps, straining during bowel movement, hard stools, a feeling of incomplete emptying of the bowels after a bowel movement, pain in the rectum, bloating, and nausea. A person who notices a change in stool shape or consistency, or blood in the stools, should be evaluated by a physician.

Treatment

Treatment options vary depending on the patient and cause of the constipation. In most cases, constipation can be relieved with proper diet and exercise. Physical therapy may also help the digestive and elimination process. If these methods are not helpful, a physician may treat constipation by prescribing laxatives or other medications. In cases where the constipation is caused by an underlying disorder, treatment for the disorder may provide relief.