What Is It?
Normally, people have bowel movements at fairly regular intervals, and stool passes out of the body easily without much straining or discomfort. Although the normal frequency of bowel movements varies from person to person, about 95% of healthy adults have a pattern that ranges from three times a day to three times a week.
In constipation, bowel movements either occur less often than expected or the stool is hard, dry and difficult to pass. Most of the time, constipation is not related to an illness or digestive disorder. Instead, the problem is caused by diet, lifestyle, medications or some other factor that hardens the stool or interferes with the stool's ability to pass comfortably. Some common triggers of constipation in adults include:
Less often, constipation may be a symptom of an illness or condition that affects the digestive tract, the brain or the spinal cord. Some examples include irritable bowel syndrome, intestinal obstruction, diverticulitis, colorectal cancer, hypothyroidism, abnormally high blood calcium levels (hypercalcemia), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury. Constipation can also be caused by abnormal positioning of pelvic organs (for example, sagging of the uterus, called "uterine prolapse"), or abnormal contraction of muscles in the pelvis.
Constipation is a very common problem that affects at least 80% of people at some time during their lives. In the United States, treatment for constipation accounts for more than 2.5 million visits to doctors' offices each year, with at least $800 million spent annually for laxatives. Although adults of all ages can suffer from constipation, the risk of this problem increases dramatically after age 65 in both men and women.
Occasionally, long-term constipation develops into fecal impaction, which is a blocked colon from a mass of stool that can't be moved by colon contractions. Fecal impaction can cause pain and vomiting, and a person with fecal impaction may require emergency treatment or hospitalization. Fecal impaction is a fairly common complication of long-term constipation in the elderly and bedridden, occurring in about 30% of all nursing home residents.
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