What is constipation?
Constipation means that stools are difficult or painful to pass and less frequent than usual.
With constipation, you may feel a strong urge to have a stool, have discomfort in the anal area, but be unable to pass a stool after straining and pushing for more than 10 minutes.
Going 3 or more days without a stool can be considered constipation, even though this may cause no pain in some people and even be normal for a few.
Some normal people have hard stools daily without any pain. Large or hard stools without the conditions just described are usually normal variations in stools.
What is the cause?
Constipation is often due to a diet that does not include enough fiber. Drinking or eating too many milk products can cause constipation for many people. It may also be caused by repeatedly waiting too long to go to the bathroom, not drinking enough liquids, or not getting enough physical exercise.
How long will it last?
Changes in the diet usually relieve constipation. After you are better, be sure to stay on a nonconstipating diet so that it doesn’t happen again.
Sometimes the trauma to the anal canal during constipation causes an anal fissure (a small tear). If you have an anal fissure, you may see small amounts of bright red blood on the toilet tissue or the stool surface.
How can I take care of myself?
- Eat fruits or vegetables at least 3 times a day. Some examples are prunes, figs, dates, raisins, peaches, pears, apricots, beans, peas, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage.
- Increase bran. Bran is a natural stool softener because it has a high fiber content. Make sure that your daily diet includes a source of bran, such as one of the new “natural” cereals, unmilled bran, bran flakes, bran muffins, shredded wheat, graham crackers, oatmeal, high-fiber cookies, brown rice, or whole wheat bread. Popcorn is one of the best high-fiber foods.
- Eat fewer constipating foods, such as cow’s milk, ice cream, cheese, and yogurt.
- Increase the amount of water you drink.
If a change in diet doesn’t relieve your constipation, take a stool softener with dinner every night for 1 week. Stool softeners (unlike laxatives) are not habit-forming. They work 8 to 12 hours after they are taken. Examples of stool softeners that you can buy at your drugstore without a prescription are MiraLAX (GlycoLax), Metamucil, Citrucel (1 tablespoon), or mineral oil (1 tablespoon).
If you have acute rectal pain and need immediate relief, try one or more glycerin suppositories.
Common mistakes in treating constipation
Don’t use any enemas without your healthcare provider’s advice. These can cause irritation of the anus. Do not use laxatives that contain senna without asking your healthcare provider because they can cause cramps.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call IMMEDIATELY if:
- You develop severe rectal or abdominal pain.
Call during office hours if:
- You do not have a stool after 3 days on the nonconstipating diet.
- You have other concerns or questions.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick”, American Academy of Pediatrics Books. Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-08-13
Last reviewed: 2011-06-06 This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional. Pediatric Advisor 2011.4 Index
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