Constipation: What Causes It and What You Can Do about It

You probably don’t give too much thought to your bathroom habits, but when things don’t seem to be moving along quite as they should, it can become a concern. Constipation is a digestive condition that occurs when the colon absorbs too much water from food as it passes through the digestive system. Stool becomes hard, lumpy and difficult to pass, and you may experience bloating or abdominal pain.

Millions of people report to their doctors that they are suffering from constipation, but doctors are far more conservative in making this diagnosis. According to a systematic review from 2004, the rates of constipation in North America range from 2 percent to 27 percent (Source: FiveThirtyEight). The highest percentages come from patients’ self-reported data, while physicians discharge billing codes show rates of just 1.2 to 4 percent. So what exactly does it mean to be constipated?

According to doctors’ diagnostic criteria, patients are considered to have constipation when they experience two or more of the following symptoms:

  • Fewer than three bowel movements per week
  • Straining during at least 25 percent of bowel movements
  • Feeling of incomplete elimination during at least 25 percent of bowel movements
  • Experiencing hard or lumpy stools at least 25 percent of the time
  • Sense of obstruction in at least 25 percent of bowel movements
  • Manual maneuvers needed to stimulate at least 25 percent of bowel movement

Chronic constipation can be idiopathic, meaning it has no known cause, or it could be the result of certain lifestyle habits. Common causes of constipation include sedentary behavior, a low-fiber diet, change in routine, not drinking enough water, consuming too much dairy, and taking certain medications. Constipation can also be a symptom of certain conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, pregnancy and diabetes.

If you experience constipation, you may be able to alleviate your symptoms with some simple changes to your daily routine. These include:

  • Eating a well-balanced, high-fiber diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables
  • Exercising daily
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Avoiding caffeine
  • Limiting consumption of dairy products
  • Taking restroom breaks whenever you feel the urge

Fiber supplements and laxatives can also be quite helpful in alleviating constipation, but check with your doctor before adding these to your regimen, as they may interfere with absorption of certain medications. Overuse of laxatives can also contribute to constipation, thus worsening your symptoms and continuing the cycle.

Constipation can be an embarrassing problem, but it’s one worth discussing with your doctor. With so many treatment options available, there’s no need to suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor about the right remedy to alleviate your symptoms, and put your bathroom issues behind you!