Don't Let Painful Constipation Slow You Down

At any given time, over 40 million Americans are constipated. Normally, a little bit of constipation is harmless, common and transient. However, constipation lasting more than a week, especially if accompanied by sharp pains in your abdomen, vomiting, or rectal bleeding, should be investigated by your health care provider. 

Chronic constipation occurs when you frequently have difficulty passing stool, or your stool is typically hard and pebble-like rather than formed and soft.

You may have other symptoms of constipation to include:

  • Pain in your lower belly
  • Bloating
  • Straining to pass a bowel movement
  • Rectal bleeding 

People with chronic constipation can have anal fissures, or small tears in the anus from the repetitive trauma of passing hard stools. These fissures can cause discomfort and itching of the anus as well as small streaks of blood on the toilet paper when wiping. Hemorrhoids can also cause blood when wiping, as well as uncomfortable discomfort in your rectum.

What's the Cause?

Many things can impact the speed at which your stool moves through your colon. The most benign reasons for chronic constipation include:

  • Dietary changes
  • Prolonged use of certain prescription medications
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Laxative abuse

If you eat a low fiber diet or very little fruits and vegetables, your dietary habits may be slowing things down in your colon. Try aiming for the recommended 22 to 34 grams of daily fiber by increasing your intake of beans, whole grains, and vegetables.

You might also want to avoid foods devoid of fiber such as chips, ice cream and processed foods. Cheese and meat are also binding foods, which can slow down the passage of stool through your colon.

Your daily medication regimen may impact your colon's motility. Discuss any long term prescription use -- including over the counter medications -- with your doctor.

Something as simple as taking daily antacids could be contributing to your bowel sluggishness, especially if you habitually use them to relieve heartburn. Likewise, medications used to treat other medical conditions can interfere with your bowel habits to include those used to treat:

  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Seizures
  • Pain

Decreased or little physical activity will impact your bowels. A sedentary lifestyle is not always a choice, sometimes it's imposed on you. For instance, following surgery or illness you may be confined to bed until you are recovered. However, if you are not under doctor's orders to remain inactive, adding at least 10 to 15 minutes of activity to your daily routine can improve the circulation to your digestive tract and help eliminate chronic constipation.

Laxative abuse, when unrelated to an associated eating disorder, can be unintentional and insidious in its approach. Since over the counter remedies for constipation are so readily available, many people will self treat with laxatives or stimulants.

Over time, your body can actually become dependent upon the laxatives and you will not be able to pass a normal bowel movement without the medications. 

There are other, more uncontrollable factors that can add to the difficulties with chronic constipation to include:

  • Advanced age
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • IBD or IBD-C
  • Spinal Cord Injuries
  • Pelvic floor dysfunction

Also, women in their third trimester of pregnancy usually experience some degree of constipation as the growing baby displaces the abdominal organs. This is expected, but should be discussed with your obstetrician so that he or she can help you safely boost your bowel motility for the remainder of your pregnancy. 

At Your Doctor's Visit

If you've tried unsuccessfully to relieve constipation it might be time to discuss your symptoms with your primary doctor. If your doctor cannot easily diagnose a cause, he or she can order a few simple and painless tests. Blood tests can show electrolyte imbalances, which could occur if you are chronically dehydrated. Imaging tests, to include abdominal x-rays or a barium enema, might show if there is a physical cause within the bowels. Tumors in the colon or rectum can slow the progression of stool, but constipation is not typically the first sign of colon cancer.


National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Laxative Abuse: Some Basic Facts. Accessed online April 20, 2015.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (n.d.). Definition and Facts for Constipation. Accessed online April 15, 2015.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (n.d.). Eating, Diet and Nutrition for Constipation. Accessed online April 15, 2015.

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