Many factors can lead to constipation — infrequent or difficult-to-pass stool. Lack of physical activity, some medications, dehydration, poor diet, pregnancy, and severe illness can all contribute to this uncomfortable and sometimes painful condition. While symptoms of constipation that last a few days may not be cause for concern, lengthy periods of bowel disturbance should be investigated by a doctor. Health professionals typically define constipation as having fewer than three bowel movements per week or the passage of hard, dry stools.
Inability to Move Bowels
The most obvious symptom of constipation is the inability to pass stool. An individual may feel as if they need to or are about to have a bowel movement but cannot complete the action. When this occurs, it is important to avoid straining, as this can cause more problems, such as tearing and hemorrhoids.
Decrease in Regular Bowel Movements
Regular bowel movements can occur more or less often, depending on the person, but if one’s personal schedule changes significantly, they could have constipation. Often, the cause of constipation can be determined by examining the diet or activities of the past few days. Often, dietary changes, sometimes as simple as increasing fiber and drinking more water can have a positive effect.
Passing Hard Stool
A constipated person may still be able to pass stool, though the process can be difficult and painful and the stool is often hard. Over-the-counter stool softeners can provide relief in most cases. If the problem persists, however, individuals should make a doctor’s appointment to discuss treatment and potential causes. Blockages and other complications can occur as a result of hardened stool.
Gas often occurs as a symptom of constipation, especially when it stems from a pre-existing condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Gas is typically accompanied by a feeling of pressure in the abdomen. A bowel movement may relieve gas. However, if gas persists, it could indicate a more serious problem.
Another common symptom of constipation is abdominal cramping. Cramps can range from dull, burning sensations to sharp, stabbing pain. When the digestive tract is unable to move and pass stool, the waste can build up in the intestines, causing these symptoms. Typically, once the stool has passed, the abdominal pain will lessen or cease. If pain continues for no clear reason, make an appointment with a doctor.
Loss of Appetite
Many issues relating to the digestive system can cause loss of appetite. Full intestines that are unable to empty make the idea of adding more food to the body very unappealing. In most cases, addressing the cause of constipation and beginning treatment accordingly should allow the appetite to return to normal. However, constipation that persists or occurs frequently, especially with a loss of appetite, could indicate more serious problems and needs medical evaluation.
Nausea can also be yet another symptom of constipation. Gas and an inability to have a bowel movement can lead to stomach discomfort, bloating, and mild or more intense feelings of nausea. Constipation, or whatever is causing it, throws the entire digestive system into disarray, and one side effect of this imbalance may be nausea and loss of appetite.
Repeated straining during bowel movements that occurs with constipation can lead to general irritation and itching in the anal area. This happens because straining to have a bowel movement and the passage of hard lumpy stools can irritate the lining of the rectum and anus. Sometimes, the passage of a hard stool can create a tear in the lining of the anus, which can also cause pain. Over-the-counter medications can help to soothe this symptom. If it persists, a doctor can also prescribe stronger medications. In most cases, anal itching subsides once constipation is addressed.
Headaches have a vast range of causes, and constipation is one of them. Depending on the severity of the condition, and other factors, an individual may experience mild headaches caused by repeated straining to pass a bowel movement. In some cases, however, the underlying condition or issue causing constipation is also responsible for the headache. Severe headaches that occur when straining to have a bowel movement can be a sign of a more serious condition such as a dilated blood vessel, or aneurysm, in the brain and needs further investigation.
People who take certain medications, especially those used to control pain, may experience disorientation from the medication. This is more common in older people. These medications can also cause constipation. Sometimes, a doctor can substitute another medication that treats the intended symptoms without causing constipation and disorientation. In any case, disorientation is something that needs medical evaluation.