What causes constipation in adults?

If you find that your bowel movements have become less frequent or tougher than normal, you may be constipated.

Though it can certainly cause discomfort – and may in some cases require a visit to your doctor – rest assured that constipation is a common occurrence. Nearly everyone goes through it at some point.

According to a recent study by the National Institute of Health, 16 out of 100 adults show symptoms of constipation, including 33 out of 100 adults 60 or older.

It’s worth noting that constipation is not a disease. While it may be a symptom of another medical problem, it’s a condition that can be treated in a number of ways.

Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that you’ll feel much better when everything is back to normal.

Before we get into what causes constipation, including the possible dietary, environmental, and medical reasons behind it, remember that what’s normal for you may be slightly different than what’s normal for someone else. This is important because constipation is often diagnosed from how your normal has changed.

For some people, multiple bowel movements a day is normal. For others, they may have a few bowel movements each week. As we’ll see, once you pass three days or more without a bowel movement, you’re likely constipated.

Primary causes for constipation in adults

Now, what causes constipation in adults?

There are a number of factors that can lead to constipation, including dietary, medical, and environmental ones.

Potential dietary Causes of constipation

Given that your colon is meant to help eliminate food waste, it stands to reason that poor diet is frequently associated with constipation. Ensuring regular intake of both dietary fiber and water allows for your stools to stay soft so they can be easily passed.

Plants and plant-based foods are a rich source of fiber. Beyond knowing where fiber comes from, though, it’s helpful to know how fiber works to soften your stool.

In short, fiber comes in both soluble and insoluble forms. Soluble fibers can be dissolved in water to make a soft, gel-like material. Insoluble fibers maintain their structures. Together, they join with the stool, simultaneously softening it while also increasing its weight and size so that it’s easier to pass.

With that, here are several other dietary causes of constipation:

  • Not eating enough fiber (this includes fruit, vegetables and cereals)
  • Not drinking enough fluid (including water)
  • Having too much dairy products in your diet

Potential medical causes of constipation

Not all causes of constipation are strictly related to what you eat and drink. There are also medical causes for chronic constipation. This can include side effects of medicines as well as conditions.

Here are some of the medical reasons you might be constipated:

  • Certain medications, including pain medications and diuretics
  • Antacids that contain calcium or aluminum
  • Certain conditions, including stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes
  • Treatments for Parkinson’s disease
  • Older age
  • Pregnancy
  • Misuse/overuse of laxatives
  • Conditions connected to the colon or rectum, like IBS, diverticulosis, or intestinal obstruction
  • Hormonal problems (like underactive thyroid gland/hypothyroidism)

Potential environmental causes of Constipation

In addition to dietary and medical causes, our environment and our reaction to our environment can interrupt our normal, healthy bowel movements. Common reasons include stress, changes in our daily routine, anxiety, or depression.

Here are a few other potential environmental causes of constipation:

  • Not moving enough, not being active
  • Long periods of time spent sitting or lying
  • Ignoring the urge to go to the bathroom
  • Stress from a new job

What causes chronic constipation?

While there are a number of causes to constipation, distinguishing between acute and chronic constipation is important for understanding your treatment options.

As discussed before, constipation can generally be described as a change or lessening in frequency of your bowel movements. A rule of thumb for constipation is having fewer than three bowel movements a week.

If that change lasts for several weeks or more, however, you may have chronic constipation.

It’s worth remembering that being constipated means that you’ll still have bowel movements. If you are facing chronic constipation, though, it may mean straining to pass stool. That discomfort can interfere with your daily life, and likely requires medical attention.

Here are additional signs of potential chronic constipation:

  • Having fewer than three bowel movements a week for several weeks in a row
  • Stools that are hard or lumpy
  • Forcing or straining to pass stool
  • Using hand against your abdomen to massage stool
  • Sense of a blockage in your rectum
  • Sense that you’re not completely emptying stool from your rectum

If you’ve experienced two or more of the above symptoms for the last three months, your constipation could be considered chronic. How it is ultimately treated will depend on the cause, if one is known.

How long does constipation last untreated

If you’re uncomfortable and haven’t passed a bowel movement in a few days, you’re likely asking yourself how long constipation lasts.

In cases of acute constipation, as well as constipation that’s brought about by diet, it can improve in a few days on its own, or with the use of constipation treatments like laxatives.

Untreated, though, and in cases where it’s connected with conditions like IBS, hypothyroidism, or Parkinson’s, the pain and discomfort with constipation can last for a significantly longer time.

If you find that your constipation lasts longer than 14 days without improvement, it’s time to seek medical attention.

What steps can I take to treat my constipation?

If you find that you are dealing with sudden constipation, belly pain, cramping, and are unable to pass stool or gas at all, it’s important to get in touch with your physician.

For chronic constipation, there are prescription chronic constipation treatments that can provide relief, discuss your options with your physician.

If you are looking to treat your own constipation first, here are a few daily changes you can make to improve your bowel movements:

  • Drink at least two glasses of water a day (and try for warm liquids in the morning)
  • Add more fruits and vegetables
  • Add bran cereal and other fiber-dense foods
  • Incorporate more active moments in your day
  • If you have the urge to poop, don’t ignore it

While constipation may be uncomfortable, it is treatable. Whether you take the steps to make changes in your diet and daily routine or decide to seek out medical treatment, your comfort and wellbeing is in your hands.

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