An introduction to the symptoms of constipation
Constipation is a very common symptom and is one that most of us will have experienced and understood. It can arise as an occasional bout, or be a more permanent feature of your health.
In itself, constipation is not usually a major health problem. However, it can lead to conditions such as haemorrhoids and diverticulitis. So, although constipation can be an embarrassing topic, it is important that you discuss your bowel habits with your doctor if you have the problem.
Are you constipated?
This is one of the more common questions asked by doctors and naturopaths when taking a medical history.
Many definitions of constipation have been made in the past, but no universal agreement exists on how the condition is diagnosed. An attempt at a standard definition for constipation (and other digestive conditions) was made with the introduction of the ‘Rome criteria’ in 1988.
You are said to be constipated if, over a 3 month period, you have experienced at least 2 of the following:
- Bowel movements less than 3 times a week
- A need to strain when passing faeces
- Hard, lumpy or pellet-like faeces
- A sensation that the outlet of your bowel (anus) is blocked
- A sensation of still needing the toilet immediately after passing faeces
- The need to use fingers to help pass faeces.
Symptoms of constipation
Apart from going to the toilet less frequently, people describe the symptoms of constipation as:
- Having to strain on the toilet
- Passing hard stools
- A feeling of incomplete emptying of the bowels
Less specific symptoms include:
- A feeling of being bloated
- Flatulence, or having excess wind
- Abdominal cramp or pain
- A change in the frequency of passing faeces.
For most people, symptoms of constipation come and go depending on lifestyle or dietary factors. They often resolve with a change of diet but some people may need to resort to the temporary use of laxatives in order to kick-start bowel movements.
If you suffer chronic or long-standing constipation symptoms, seek help from your doctor.
Passing blood in your stools should always be considered a serious matter and one which you should seek help for, from your doctor.
Blood in stools can appear red and liquid (runny), or it can be mixed in with your stools making them look tar-like or black. Constipation can lead to blood in stools due to 2 main reasons:
- Hard stools can irritate and tear the tissues of the lower bowel. This is particularly so if you need to strain to pass faeces
- long-standing constipation can lead to the development of haemorrhoids and these can, in turn, bleed when you pass faeces
In addition, seek help from your doctor if you suffer from long-standing constipation and notice any unexplained weight loss, sudden or abnormal tummy pains or suddenly develop diarrhoea.
How can herbal remedies help?
Herbs have been used to help people with constipation for many years. In general, they work by either increasing the volume or bulk in the bowel (bulking agents) or increasing the muscle activity of the bowels (stimulants).