Constipation, like diarrhea, is difficult to define with precision due to the wide variation in normal bowel habits. However, because
95% of people have at least three bowel movements per week, for practical purposes constipation can be defined as a condition in
which fewer than three stools per week are passed. In addition to infrequent stools, constipation usually carries a connotation of
difficulty in passing the stool.
The economic costs of constipation are impressive. In the United States, more than $250 million is spent annually on laxatives.
Additional costs of unknown magnitude are incurred in the evaluation of patients for underlying disorders that may predispose to
constipation. Etiology and differential diagnosis. Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. It may develop as a functional condition,
in which case it appears to be related to changes in bowel motility; it may be a component of a bowel condition, such as symptomatic
diverticular disease or irritable bowel syndrome; or it may result from a specific abnormality or disorder, such as an obstructing
cancer of the colon or hypothyroidism . Diet:-Functional constipation occurs with somewhat greater frequency in women and increases
in prevalence with age in both sexes.
It appears to be influenced by the composition of the diet, particularly the fiber content. Normal daily stool weight in the United
States ranges from 100 to 200 g, and the stool is composed of about 80% water. Increasing the dietary fiber increases the stool
weight, primarily because of retained water, and increases the stool frequency. Recent evidence also indicates that several grams
of dietary carbohydrates and polysaccharides normally pass undigested to the colon, where they are metabolized by bacteria to
osmotically active particles and cathartic agents. Thus, a diet low in complex sugars (e.g., fruits) and carbohydrates may contribute
to constipation. Lack of exercise:- also is associated with constipation. Whether this is the major predisposing factor to
constipation of bedridden patients and the elderly and whether their poor dietary intake of fiber and carbohydrates is an additional
important factor are difficult to determine. Colonic obstruction:- One caveat that is important for diagnosis should be mentioned.
Some patients with an obstructing lesion, such as a sigmoid carcinoma or a fecal impaction, have diarrhea, characterized by the
frequent passage of small amounts of loose or liquid stool. This is because the stool proximal to the obstruction is poorly absorbed
and seeps around the obstruction. The physician must be attentive in recognizing such patients to avoid inappropriate treatment with
antidiarrheal medications, which would only worsen the underlying disorder. Diagnosis Clinical presentation History. To paraphrase
a common saying, One mans constipation is another mans diarrhea. Thus it is important that the physician determine what the patient
means by constipation. How frequently are stools passed? What is their consistency? Is the condition acute or chronic? Are there
associated signs or symptoms, such as weight loss, abdominal pain, or blood in the stool? Constipation of long duration accompanied
by crampy abdominal pain without weight loss or systemic symptoms suggests functional constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, or
symptomatic diverticular disease. On the other hand, constipation of recent onset, blood in the stool, or change in the stool
caliber suggests another causative disorder, such as carcinoma of the lower bowel.
A history of calcium channel blocker, anticholinergic, or opiate drug intake should be sought as an explanation for constipation.
The physical examination may give a clue to systemic disease, such as hypothyroidism or a neurogenic disorder. An abdominal mass
may indicate an obstructing lesion or merely firm stool in the colon. The character of the stool itself and the tone of the anal
sphincter can be determined by rectal examination. Diagnostic studies. Most patients who have constipation that is severe enough
to cause them to consult a physician require some diagnostic evaluation beyond the history, physical examination, and stool
testing for occult blood. The extent of the evaluation varies according to the individual circumstances, but in general, a minimal
evaluation of constipation consists of sigmoidoscopy and barium enema or colonoscopic examination. Additional studies may include
serum electrolytes, thyroid function studies, blood glucose, and serum calcium. Treatment of constipation involves addressing a
number of issues, including lifestyle, diet, and medications. If a specific cause of constipation is identified, therapy of course
includes treatment of the cause. Lifestyle. Some patients literally do not take time to have a bowel movement. Their busy schedules
require frequent cortical inhibition of the urge to defecate. Although it may be difficult to put in practice, simply recognizing
the urge to defecate and acting on it may be the first step for many patients in achieving normal laxation.
A program of mild exercise (e.g., walking) for sedentary patients may improve constipation. The average daily intake of crude fiber
in the United States is about 4 g. This is roughly one fifth of the daily intake of the native populations of some areas in Africa,
who typically have four or five bulky stools per day. Because fiber is hydrophilic, increasing the fiber intake should produce large
stools that require more frequent passage. Dietary fiber can be increased by eating fruits, vegetables, potato skins, and
bran-containing foods. Some patients find it easier to consume fiber in the form of raw, unprocessed bran, 1 to 2 tablespoons per
day, or a commercial product such as Metamucil. Bran or commercial fiber supplements should be mixed in water or juice before
ingestion. Increasing total daily intake of water to 1 to 2 Liter augments the laxative effects of dietary fiber.