Stool frequency and regularity vary from person to person. For some, having three bowel movements a day is normal, while for others, it is perfectly acceptable to have one every three days. Although the frequency of bowel movements may not be relevant, their regularity is. That being said, the definition of constipation is very personal. Generally speaking, CONSTIPATION is defined as the absence of bowel movements for 3 days. The word constipation is also used to describe the painful passage of hard stools.
Constipation can affect people of all ages. Young children and the elderly are slightly more at risk. Constipation affects 3 times more women than men.
The causes of constipation are many and include:
- Eating foods that harden stools (especially cheese and eggs)
- Low dietary fibre intake
- Lack of exercise
- Lying down for prolonged periods (when sick, for example)
- Certain drugs
When constipation lasts for several days, it is important to identify and treat the root cause of the problem.
When should I see a health care professional?
Most of the time, constipation is a minor and temporary problem. In most cases, it is caused by changes to one’s diet. However, certain signs may indicate a more serious problem:
- Constipation that lasts more than a week
- Anal pain
- Major abdominal pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Reddish or black stools
Consult a physician if you experience any of these symptoms. It is important to identify the cause of your constipation. If you think that your medication may be causing your constipation, speak to your pharmacist.
It may seem strange to talk about laxative abuse, but prolonged use of bisacodyl (Dulcolax®) or senna (Senokot®) can really lead to dependence! In such cases, the intestine becomes lazy and is unable to work without the laxative. To prevent this from occurring, never use laxatives for more than a few days without first speaking to a health care professional.
TRUE OR FALSE?
It is important to have one bowel movement a day
FALSE! Each person has a different rhythm, and this rhythm can change throughout life. Having one bowel movement every two to three days is quite normal. Even those who usually have a bowel movement each day can skip a day from time to time with no consequences.
Bowel movements can happen at any time during the day.
TRUE! The intestine needs from 36 to 72 hours (1½ to 3 days) to expel waste after a meal. Some foods however, require more time than others to be processed. As a result, a bowel movement may happen at any time during the day. People are rarely awakened at night because the intestine works more slowly while we sleep.
Constipation can be toxic for the body.
FALSE! Constipation may be uncomfortable and cause certain health problems. It can also be the result of certain diseases. Stool cannot pass into the bloodstream even during prolonged constipation (except in some very exceptional cases). There is virtually no risk of being intoxicated.
Treating / preventing constipation
Several measures can be taken to relieve or prevent occasional constipation:
- Drink plenty of fluids (8 glasses or more a day)
- Avoid foods that cause constipation (cheese, eggs)
- Exercise regularly
- Eat plums, raisins and figs
- Do not repress the urge to have a bowel movement
- Increase your fibre intake
These simple steps can help prevent or relieve constipation, often without having to resort to laxatives.
Laxatives, available in several forms including liquid, powder, suppository, tablet or enema, stimulate the intestine and relieve constipation. They are usually differentiated by their onset of action. The most potent ones act within a few hours and often cause diarrhea. The milder ones need several days to take effect, cause fewer side effects and are most widely recommended.
Most laxatives are available without a prescription. Consult your pharmacist to determine which product would be the safest and most effective for your own condition. Before he can recommend a specific product, your pharmacist will take into consideration the probable cause of your constipation, your current medications and concurrent diseases, if applicable. Follow his advice and do not hesitate to consult him if you have any questions.