Constipation is defined as having a bowel movement fewer than three times per week. With constipation stools are usually hard, dry, small in size, and difficult to eliminate. Some people who are constipated find it painful to have a bowel movement and often experience straining, bloating, and the sensation of a full bowel.
Some people think they are constipated if they do not have a bowel movement every day. However, normal stool elimination may be three times a day or three times a week, depending on the person.
Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. Almost everyone experiences constipation at some point in their life, and a poor diet typically is the cause. Most constipation is temporary and not serious. Understanding its causes, prevention, and treatment will help most people find relief.
A physical exam may include a rectal exam with a gloved, lubricated finger to evaluate the tone of the muscle that closes off the anus—also called anal sphincter—and to detect tenderness, obstruction, or blood. In some cases, blood and thyroid tests may be necessary to look for thyroid disease and serum calcium or to rule out inflammatory, metabolic, and other disorders.
Extensive testing usually is reserved for people with severe symptoms, for those with sudden changes in the number and consistency of bowel movements or blood in the stool, and older adults. Additional tests that may be used to evaluate constipation include
- a colorectal transit study
- anorectal function tests
- a defecography
Because of an increased risk of colorectal cancer in older adults, the doctor may use tests to rule out a diagnosis of cancer, including a
- barium enema x ray
- sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy