Although constipation is very common, if it is overlooked, it can eventually cause complications, some of which may be serious, says Professor Olusegun Adekanle, a consultant gastroenterologist with the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital Complex. December was named Constipation Awareness Month.
The idea is to raise awareness and let people know what it is all about, its manifestations and what people can do about it. This ensures people take responsibility for their health and present themselves in hospital in case they have constipation.
What exactly is constipation in medical practice?
A person is said to have constipation when there is a departure from the normal number of times that person passes feces and hard stools, which are difficult to pass.
The frequency of passing feces varies across the world.
The white people pass stool like once a week, but in Africa, where people take high-fiber diets, it is about once a day. Some people even pass feces twice a day. If a person is supposed to go to the toilet once or twice a day and now it has turned to once every three or four days, that is constipation for Africans. So, any departure from the usual frequency of passing stool is a problem; it is individualized. It is food that actually dictates the frequency of passing stools most of the time.
What is (are) its cause(s)?
Actually, constipation is a sickness with a wide range of reasons. Some are straightforward, such as dehydration from not drinking enough water, while others are really serious and should not be treated carelessly. Constipation can be caused by a number of common factors, such as taking certain drugs, exercising infrequently, drinking too little water, ignoring the urge to pass gas or holding onto waste, getting older and intestinal blockages
On the other hand, many disease entities can result in constipation. People with conditions like stroke, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries may be constipated because the reflex to the large bowels that controls the movement of stool out of the body is affected.
Can stress or anxiety contribute to constipation?
In medicine, there is never a no. Just as a person under stress will not remember that he wants to go and pass stool, it is only after the event has passed that he realizes that he might have constipation because he has not gone to the toilet for the past three days. Also, stress can make somebody suddenly want to go to the toilet to stoop because the system is out of order. So, either of them can occur.
Should constipation be a thing of concern to make a person promptly seek medical help?
Everybody should know what his normal frequency of passing stool is, and once there is a departure, it is likely constipation. The person should seek medical advice because some of its causes shouldn’t be taken lightly. It could be due to many things, so a thorough examination by the physician at this stage will be important. It might not need medication, but a diet or even lifestyle modification, depending on its cause.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that the burden of diabetes in developing countries will increase in the years to come. So, if somebody wants to go to the toilet normally every day or to normalize, they should go back to eating natural foods, vegetables, cocoyam and so on. All these contain high fiber content.
If constipation is a disease, it means that if left untreated, it could lead to some complications. What are these? Persistent constipation can lead to many complications. As the person is trying to force it out, a tear in the skin around the anus may occur, subsequently causing bleeding. Also, hemorrhoids (the swollen, inflamed blood vessels in the anal part) and prolapse could occur, which is a part of the large intestine that slips out of the anus. Sometimes, it may still go back.
A common remedy for constipation is drinking water and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables.
Constipation that arises from an intestinal obstruction, abdominal distension or fecal impaction will require much more than increased intake of water and diet modification. It could have been due to more sinister things, like cancer.