In medical terms, the answer to the question "what is constipation" is simple and straightforward: it's having bowel movements less than three times a week. But in reality, the answer all depends on the individual, and what's normal for you.
Constipation is the most common gastrointestinal complaint in the US, effecting more than 4 million people. It is most frequent among women over 65, and it accounts for more than 2.5 million doctor visits annually. Americans spend more than $725 million on laxative products each year.
Virtually everyone will experience difficult or irregular elimination at some time during their life, and medical experts say that occasional irregularity isn't generally a cause for concern. But in some cases it is; the sudden onset of acute constipation can be an urgent symptom of an underlying condition, and for many people constipation is a chronic and life-disrupting problem that effects both comfort and health.
What is "normal"?
Medically speaking, the range of "normal" bowel movements is anywhere from three times per week to three times per day. Experts agree that though for many people a daily bowel movement is both natural and normal, it's definitely not medically essential for health. Going without a bowel movement for as long as three days doesn't necessarily lead to physical discomfort, and there is no evidence that infrequent movements lead to an accumulation of toxins.
But since frequency elimination is an intensely individual aspect of health, what is "normal" depends on what is normal for each person. Statistics indicate that less than 50% of people do have a bowel movement every day, and most people don't have the same number of movements each day.
Simply put, not having daily bowel movements doesn't mean you're constipated. But having difficult or uncomfortable movements, or fewer bowel movements than is usual and comfortable for you, does.
The mechanics of irregularity
Understanding constipation involves understanding how the digestive system works. Food that we've eaten moves out of the stomach and into the large intestine, or colon, which transforms the unusable residue of the food into waste products. In the process the colon absorbs water from the food, reducing it to solid material called stool, and muscle contractions in the colon push the stool toward the rectum.
Problems with this process are the technical cause of constipation. If the colon absorbs too much water from the waste that moves through it, stool can become too solid. The slower the waste moves through the colon the more water will be absorbed, so weak or sluggish intestinal muscle contractions result in stool that is hard, dry, and difficult to expel. In severe cases, the stool may become impacted in the intestine and actually block it.
When is constipation a cause for concern?
It's important to know what schedule of elimination is normal for you, and to keep in mind that occasional irregularity is generally neither unusual nor alarming. However, there are some indications that elimination problems could be serious and may require medical treatment. Consider consulting with a physician if you observe any of the following in conjunction with constipation:
- you experience abdominal pain
- you see blood in your stool
- if your stool is black
- if you need to use laxatives regularly
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