We all have times when we might say that “going” is not going so well and our normal “regularity” gets a little irregular. However you want to describe it, we can agree that no go is no good. But when does constipation become something to really worry about?
Well-Being spoke to gastroenterologist Dr. Michelle A. Petro, of G.I. Associates about how to know when to see a doctor about constipation and some common- sense measures you can take to lessen or prevent your problem with diet and lifestyle changes. For the sake of our discussion, we started with a definition of constipation.
Constipation is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. Chronic constipation is infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools that persists for several weeks or longer. Although occasional constipation is quite common, chronic constipation can interfere with the ability to go about daily tasks.
We asked Dr. Petro what a person who is troubled with occasional constipation should try to relieve the problem.
“There are a number of things you can do to improve the regularity of your bowel movements that you should try first,” notes Dr. Petro. “Increase your water intake, improve your diet (cut out fats and sugars and add more fiber and lean protein), increase activity/exercise and try probiotics. If you are a smoker, you should quit.”
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends a high fiber diet (25 to 31 grams daily) to help prevent constipation. If you are looking to add some fiber to your diet to help improve your bowel habits, increase your intake of the following foods:
According to Dr. Petro, stress can become a factor contributing to your risk of constipation. “Sometimes people who are stressed tend to eat a less healthy diet, get less exercise and may not take care of themselves as well as they do when they are not under stress. Stress is common and has many issues that are associated with it. Exercise is one of the best anti-anxiety treatments and stress relievers we have.”
“If you still are having occasional problems you can try over the counter constipation medications, but you should talk to a doctor if you have to use these products more than two weeks,” Petro continues. “By using OTC laxatives you could be masking a problem or condition that needs treatment. I prefer patients avoid the stimulant-type laxatives and use products such as probiotics, stool softeners, Miralax or milk of magnesia.”
“If your symptoms persist you should talk to your doctor,” Dr. Petro explains. “You should also seek medical advice if constipation comes on suddenly, which could signify a possible problem. Other reasons for concern that warrant a trip to the doctor include if you have ever seen blood with your bowel movement or if you notice any weight changes or pain.”
How do you know if you have chronic constipation? When an occasional problem becomes an ongoing struggle it is time to talk to your doctor about your bowel habits and get his or her advice about the best course of action. Following are a few signs and symptoms of chronic constipation:
“Once you come in for an appointment, there are a number of diagnostic tests available for us to use to determine your condition,” adds Petro. “First we will go over your symptoms and your medical history and do a physical exam. We can get labs, perform imaging studies such as x-rays, cat scans, and/or colonoscopy. A colon-oscopy is a test where we can look inside your colon and see if there are any blockages or other problems. The results of these tests will help us determine treatment recommendations.”
“So many bowel related problems can be addressed with healthy living. The bottom line is, try to care for your body as best you can. We only get one! Nourish it, take it for or walk or to the gym, give it plenty of water, and take it to the doctor for preventive care. Your body will thank you for it,” Dr. Petro concludes.
Michelle Ann Petro, M.D., Gastroenterologist, is a member of the medical staff serving Flowood GI Associates and Endoscopy Center and the Madison GI Associates and Endoscopy Center. Dr. Petro received her Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of MS School of Medicine and completed both her residency in Internal Medicine and her fellowship in Gastroenterology at the University of MS Medical Center and Clinics. She is board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.