Illustration of a digestive system highlighting chronic constipation.

The Essential Guide to Understanding Chronic Constipation

Since chronic constipation can be uncomfortable to discuss, few people talk about the condition. However, it has a worldwide prevalence of over %15, making it more common than one would think.

This guide will help you understand the condition and help you eliminate some of the need for uncomfortable conversations.

Keep reading to learn what chronic constipation is, what causes it, and how you can prevent it.

What is Constipation?

Constipation is a condition in which individuals have difficulty passing stools or have insufficient bowel movements.

Ideally, an individual would have a bowel movement between three times a week to three times a day. Anything less than three times each week would be identified as constipation.

Symptoms of constipation include:

  • Stools are painful to pass
  • Stomach aches or cramps
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Feeling as if you haven’t completely emptied your bowels after a movement

It is important to note that constipation does not necessarily mean that you are unable to pass a bowel movement entirely. An individual may pass some stool and still be constipated. The difference would be whether or not they have emptied their bowels and the process was completed using strain. Bowel movements should be soft and easy to pass with no strain or pain.

What is Considered Chronic?

A condition is considered chronic when it is ongoing, lasting months to years. Having a chronic condition also means having to adjust your lifestyle or medications to the demands of the condition.

Chronic conditions place limitations on an individual’s self-care and social interactions, disturb quality of life, or result in ongoing medical intervention.

The long-term effects of chronic constipation are serious. Individuals experiencing months or years of constipation may develop co-existing conditions such as:

  • Hemorrhoids- This is a condition that causes the veins in your lower rectum to swell. Hemorrhoids may or may not be painful and often cause bleeding. Long-term effects of hemorrhoids are rare but may result in anemia.
  • Fecal impaction- Fecal impaction is a condition where hardened stool becomes stuck in the lower bowels or rectum. This condition can be incredibly painful, causing the affected individual to feel severe cramping and even rectal prolapse (a condition where the rectum slips out of the anus). Long-term fecal impaction can lead to colitis, ulcers, and obstruction of the colon which can be fatal.
  • Bowel incontinence- Bowel incontinence is a condition that causes an individual to have an inability to control their bowel movements. This means that the affected individual may involuntarily soil themselves. The most notable long-term effect of this condition is the effect it has on an individual’s quality of life, social interactions, and ability to work.

What Causes Constipation?

There are many potential causes of constipation. For some individuals, constipation occurs due to lifestyle choices and for others, it occurs due to medical conditions or diseases.

  • Poor diet- A diet lacking adequate fiber or water intake may lead to constipation.
  • Lack of physical activity- Physical inactivity can slow the digestive system, making passing a bowel movement more difficult.
  • Physical structural issues- Many structural issues within the body make passing a bowel movement difficult or impossible. These abnormalities may be located in the rectum, colon, or pelvic floor and are often developed while in utero.
  • Medications- Constipation is sometimes a side effect of medications. Some antidepressants, antacids, cannabis edibles, and opioids are examples of medications known to frequently cause constipation.
  • Medical condition or disease- Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, and hypothyroidism often cause constipation.
  • Psychological conditions- Individuals suffering from psychological conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression can disrupt digestion or create a hostile mindset, making it difficult to pass a bowel movement comfortably.
  • Neurological conditions- Some neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries may affect nerves in the colon, leading to the inability to pass stool.

How Can You Prevent Chronic Constipation?

Unless an individual’s constipation is caused by an irreversible or untreatable condition, it can be prevented and/or managed.

  • Add fiber to your diet- Eating more high-fiber foods like whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, and bran can help make your stool bulkier and more regular.
  • Exercise- Exercising regularly, like walking or doing other activities, can help stimulate the natural contractions of your intestines.
  • Switch your medications- Talk to your doctor about medication side effects and request an alternative if the drug is suspected to be the cause. If cannabis edibles are the cause, you can switch strains or consumption methods (learn more about cannabis-related constipation here).

If constipation is already present, you can find relief by eating fiber, exercising, taking a laxative, drinking water, or using a stool softener or enema. If the constipation is chronic, talk to your doctor before using over-the-counter medications.

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