Chronic constipation is infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools that persists for several weeks or longer.
Constipation is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week.
Though occasional constipation is very common, some people experience chronic constipation that can interfere with their ability to go about their daily tasks. Chronic constipation may also cause people to strain excessively in order to have a bowel movement.
Treatment for chronic constipation depends in part on the underlying cause. However, in some cases, a cause is never found.
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Signs and symptoms of chronic constipation include:
- Passing fewer than three stools a week
- Having lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to have bowel movements
- Feeling as though there's a blockage in your rectum that prevents bowel movements
- Feeling as though you can't completely empty the stool from your rectum
- Needing help to empty your rectum, such as using your hands to press on your abdomen and using a finger to remove stool from your rectum
Constipation may be considered chronic if you've experienced two or more of these symptoms for the last three months.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience unexplained and persistent changes in your bowel habits.
Constipation most commonly occurs when waste or stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract or cannot be eliminated effectively from the rectum, which may cause the stool to become hard and dry. Chronic constipation has many possible causes.
Blockages in the colon or rectum
Blockages in the colon or rectum may slow or stop stool movement. Causes include:
- Tiny tears in the skin around the anus (anal fissure)
- A blockage in the intestines (bowel obstruction)
- Colon cancer
- Narrowing of the colon (bowel stricture)
- Other abdominal cancer that presses on the colon
- Rectal cancer
- Rectum bulge through the back wall of the vagina (rectocele)
Problems with the nerves around the colon and rectum
Neurological problems can affect the nerves that cause muscles in the colon and rectum to contract and move stool through the intestines. Causes include:
- Damage to the nerves that control bodily functions (autonomic neuropathy)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson's disease
- Spinal cord injury
Difficulty with the muscles involved in elimination
Problems with the pelvic muscles involved in having a bowel movement may cause chronic constipation. These problems may include:
- The inability to relax the pelvic muscles to allow for a bowel movement (anismus)
- Pelvic muscles that don't coordinate relaxation and contraction correctly (dyssynergia)
- Weakened pelvic muscles
Conditions that affect hormones in the body
Hormones help balance fluids in your body. Diseases and conditions that upset the balance of hormones may lead to constipation, including:
- Overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
Factors that may increase your risk of chronic constipation include:
- Being an older adult
- Being a woman
- Being dehydrated
- Eating a diet that's low in fiber
- Getting little or no physical activity
- Taking certain medications, including sedatives, opioid pain medications, some antidepressants or medications to lower blood pressure
- Having a mental health condition such as depression or an eating disorder
Complications of chronic constipation include:
- Swollen veins in your anus (hemorrhoids). Straining to have a bowel movement may cause swelling in the veins in and around your anus.
- Torn skin in your anus (anal fissure). A large or hard stool can cause tiny tears in the anus.
- Stool that can't be expelled (fecal impaction). Chronic constipation may cause an accumulation of hardened stool that gets stuck in your intestines.
- Intestine that protrudes from the anus (rectal prolapse). Straining to have a bowel movement can cause a small amount of the rectum to stretch and protrude from the anus.
The following can help you avoid developing chronic constipation.
- Include plenty of high-fiber foods in your diet, including beans, vegetables, fruits, whole grain cereals and bran.
- Eat fewer foods with low amounts of fiber such as processed foods, and dairy and meat products.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Stay as active as possible and try to get regular exercise.
- Try to manage stress.
- Don't ignore the urge to pass stool.
- Try to create a regular schedule for bowel movements, especially after a meal.
- Make sure children who begin to eat solid foods get plenty of fiber in their diets.