Constipation is an uncomfortable health problem that can make for painfully awkward conversations. This is why Americans often turn to family physicians or gastroenterologists when constipation becomes a concern.
Constipation is responsible for some 2.5 million visits to a doctor or specialist annually in America, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
There is no hard-and-fast definition for constipation, but it’s often described as the inability to have more than three bowel movements per week. However, some people who experience only three bowel movements weekly are still healthy, depending on their age, diet and daily physical activity.
Telltale signals you may want to see your doctor about a constipation problem include straining, hard stools and incomplete evacuation occurring in more than 25 percent of bowel movements, according to WebMD.
Common, less serious causes of constipation:
- Living a sedentary lifestyle.
- Forgetting to drink enough water.
- Not eating enough fiber-rich foods.
- Postponing a necessary trip to the bathroom.
- Failing to deal with life’s stressors.
A more serious problem
Constipation can be a more costly and serious health problem than you assume, according to a 2009 report published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
Some 63 million people living in America suffer from constipation every year, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, and spend $235 million annually to treat it. Researchers also found links between constipation and a number of painful health problems:
Hemorrhoids: Straining during a bowel movement may cause veins in lower rectum to swell or become inflamed.
Anal fissure: These small tears in thin, moist tissue may happen when you pass large or hard stools during a bowel movement.
Fecal incontinence: Constipation, along with diarrhea and muscle or nerve damage, may cause an inability to control bowel movements.
Colon cancer risks increase with chronic constipation
The health outcomes become even more serious if you experience chronic constipation, according to a 2012 study that compared the health of nearly 29,000 patients suffering from persistent constipation to some 87,000 healthy patients. The risk of colon cancer nearly doubled among patients with chronic constipation while the incidence of benign tumors (neoplasms) increased nearly threefold.
Colon cancer is nothing to ignore, as it’s the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of death among all cancer types in the U.S.
“Although chronic constipation is considered a relatively benign disease, practitioners should be aware of this potential association to monitor and treat accordingly,” said Dr. Nicholas Talley of the University of Newcastle and co-investigator of this study. “We encourage anyone with questions related to their condition to talk to their health care professional so that the specific health needs of each patient can be balanced with the risks and benefits of medications.”
One of the popular medications people use to treat constipation — sodium phosphate laxatives — was the subject of a recent FDA warning, based on patients exceeding the recommended daily dosage of this over-the-counter remedy.
The FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System showed a single dose of sodium phosphate per day was associated with rare, but serious damage to a person’s lungs and heart.
Children under age 5, baby boomers over age 55 and people diagnosed with or taking medications for kidney disease are among the patient groups who are at the greatest risk of serious complications when laxative dosage is exceeded. (Children under age 2 should not be given the rectal form of sodium phosphate.)
Taking a probiotic with multiple strains of beneficial bacteria, like EndoMune, is a safer treatment for constipation that has the added advantage of boosting your immune system, reducing your risks of colon cancer and maintaining normal intestinal motility.