Constipation can affect people of all ages
3/18/2021 by Michelle Duvall, M.D.
Bowel movements are a fact of life that many of us take for granted until something goes wrong. Constipation is when someone has difficulty either because bowel movements are infrequent or become hard to pass.
What is normal?
It is normal for people to have occasional constipation. Generally, we expect the average person to have at least three bowel movements per week. Normal bowel movements should be easy to pass without pain, straining or difficulty. Stools should be soft and not hard or lumpy.
What causes constipation?
Common factors leading to constipation include dehydration, reduced activity and low-fiber diets. However, there is a long list of other causes, including medications and conditions such as hypothyroidism, and even certain cancers.
How is constipation treated?
Treatment always depends on the cause. Generally, for occasional constipation, the first and most important treatment includes diet and activity. These changes can alleviate constipation and prevent it from returning.
Maintain regular activity throughout the day, from taking walks to more vigorous exercise. Keeping your body moving keeps your bowels moving, too.
Your diet should include a daily intake of high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Some people choose to take over-the-counter fiber supplements.
Hydration is key, as it helps keep stool soft and moving easily through the digestive system. Make sure to sip on fluids throughout the day and with every meal.
Occasionally, people find benefit from over-the-counter laxatives, which come in many forms and can be effective. If changes in diet and activity are not enough, talk with your health care provider about whether this option is right for you.
When to be evaluated
A sudden change in bowel habits that persists and does not improve with diet and activity should be evaluated. Bleeding and pain should not be ignored and need to be discussed with your health care provider.
Michelle Duvall, M.D., is a family medicine physician in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson. She practices at Mayo Family Clinic Northwest.