Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
Constipation is defined medically as fewer than three
stools per week and severe constipation as less than one stool per week.
Constipation usually is caused by the slow movement of
stool through the colon.
There are many causes of constipation including
medications, poor bowel habits, low fiber diets, abuse of laxatives, hormonal
disorders, and diseases primarily of other parts of the body that also affect
The two disorders limited to the colon that cause
constipation are colonic inertia and pelvic floor dysfunction.
High levels of estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy also can cause constipation.
Medical evaluation for the cause of constipation
should be done when constipation is of sudden onset, severe, worsening,
associated with other worrisome symptoms such as loss of weight, or is not
responding to simple, safe treatments.
Medical evaluation of constipation may include a
history, physical examination, blood tests, abdominal X-rays, barium enema,
colonic transit studies, defecography, anorectal motility studies, and
colonic motility studies.
The goal of therapy for constipation is one bowel
movement every two to three days without straining.
Treatment of constipation may include dietary fiber,
non-stimulant laxatives, stimulant laxatives, enemas, suppositories,
biofeedback training, and surgery.
Stimulant laxatives should be used as a last
resort because of the possibility that they may permanently damage the colon and worsen
Most herbal laxatives contain stimulant-type laxatives and should be used, if at
all, as a last resort.
What is constipation?
Constipation means different things to different people. For many people, it
simply means infrequent stools. For others, however, constipation means hard
stools, difficulty passing stools (straining), or a sense of incomplete emptying
after a bowel movement. The cause of each of these "types" of constipation
probably is different, and the approach to each should be tailored to the
specific type of constipation.
Constipation also can alternate with diarrhea.
This pattern commonly occurs as part of the irritable bowel syndrome
(IBS). At the extreme end of the constipation spectrum is fecal impaction, a
condition in which stool hardens in the rectum and prevents the passage of any
The number of bowel movements generally decreases with age. Ninety-five percent of adults
have bowel movements between three and 21 times per week, and this would be
considered normal. The most common pattern is one bowel movement a day, but this
pattern is seen in less than 50% of people. Moreover, most people are irregular
and do not have bowel movements every day or the same number of bowel movements
Medically speaking, constipation usually is defined as fewer than three bowel movements per week.
Severe constipation is defined as less than one bowel movement per week.
There is no medical reason to have a bowel movement every day. Going without
a bowel movement for two or three days does not cause physical discomfort, only
mental distress for some people. Contrary to popular belief, there is
no evidence that "toxins" accumulate when bowel movements are infrequent or
that constipation leads to cancer.
It is important to distinguish acute (recent onset) constipation from chronic (long duration) constipation.
constipation requires urgent assessment because a serious medical illness
may be the underlying cause (for example, tumors of the colon). Constipation also
requires an immediate assessment if it is accompanied by worrisome symptoms
such as rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and cramps, nausea and
vomiting, and involuntary
loss of weight. In contrast, the evaluation of chronic
constipation may not be urgent, particularly if simple
measures bring relief.
Reviewed by William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR on 9/19/2012