Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints in the United States. It can affect anyone at anytime, but it often occurs during pregnancy and after childbirth or surgery. It's also most common in men and women over the age of 65. In most cases, constipation is temporary and can be treated with natural remedies, fruits and vegetables, and over-the-counter products. Moreover, constipation may be prevented with simple lifestyle and dietary changes.
According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, constipation is caused by the colon absorbing too much water or sluggish muscle contractions that move the stool too slowly. As a result of this, stool can become hard and dry. Symptoms of constipation often include hard stool, excessive straining, blood in stool, abdominal pain and infrequent bowel movements—on average, fewer than three bowel movements a week.
In addition to increasing water intake, eating fiber and exercising, foods that can help maintain regular bowel function include grapes, pears, soybeans, flaxseed, apricots, figs, peaches, brown rice, beans, bran, prunes and leafy vegetables. Laxatives and other medications are often used to soften the stool and relieve constipation when dietary changes aren't enough.
Stimulant laxatives are perhaps the most widely used over-the-counter laxatives. They provide quick relief from constipation by causing rhythmic contractions in the intestinal wall. They're available in liquid and pill form. Saline laxatives are typically used in preparation for surgical procedures. These laxatives work by drawing water into the colon, making it easier to pass stool. Saline laxatives are taken orally and work rapidly. Lubricant laxatives coat the bowel with a waterproof film, enabling the stool to remain soft, moving through the colon easily.
Enemas contain fluid that works by moistening the stool and preventing it from becoming hard and dry. These are administered rectally and are helpful when there is a fecal impaction in the rectum. Epsom salt or sea salt may also be used to help relieve constipation. When mixed with water, both products enable elimination in as little as 30 minutes. Finally, senna tea is often used to soften stool and help relieve constipation. One tea bag can help bring on an elimination within a few hours.
Amitiza, also known a lubiprostone, is a chloride channel activator that increases the fluid content of stool. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006 to treat chronic constipation. Side effects of Amitiza may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Cephula, Miralax, Duphalac, Glycolax and Lactulose are popular osmotic laxatives. Osmotics increase the amount of fluid secreted within the intestines, resulting in bowel movements. Some osmotic laxatives require a prescription, while others may be purchased over-the-counter. Common side effects of osmotic laxatives include nausea, bloating, diarrhea and flatulence.
Over the Counter
Other drugs and medications associated with constipation include Alophen, Citrucel, Correctol, Dulcolax, Ex-Lax, FiberCon, Genfiber, Hydrocil, Milk of Magnesia, Metamucil, Senokot and Visicol. These medications may be used to maintain regular bowel movements or treat constipation.
Laxatives should not be taken more than two weeks without a doctor's recommendation. Contact your doctor if you experience constipation for two or more weeks, bowel movements are accompanied by severe pain or if blood is present in your stool.