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Signs of Constipation, Causes and Treatment

Updated on February 17, 2014

Knowing and understanding constipation symptoms and treatment is imperative in effectively managing the condition. Even if it is common and considered a less serious form of digestive problem, chronic constipation could lead to other health problems, which is why it should not be taken for granted. Constipation, along with its accompanying symptoms, indicates that the digestive system is facing a problem.

It is worth noting that constipation symptoms and treatment slightly differ between children and adults. Unlike in adults, constipation in children is rarely due to any underlying medical disorder and is often a result of intentional avoidance of the comfort room. It is important for the concerned parties to understand why constipation occurs to effectively treat the symptoms and prevent future episodes.

Anatomy of the Digestive System

In order for an individual to properly understand constipation symptoms and treatment, he or she has to have a bit of an understanding of the anatomy of the digestive system first. Constipation occurs as a result of a sluggish digestive system. The digestive system starts from the mouth down to the anus. The food enters the mouth and goes down to the esophagus, and all the way to the stomach, wherein it is broken down. The food then enters the small intestine where it is further digested and mixed with different digestive enzymes like bile and pancreatic enzymes. Absorption of nutrients also takes place in the small intestine. Finally, food enters the large intestine wherein the water from the food is absorbed while the waste products or stool is formed and stored in the rectum.

It takes around 12 to 24 hours for the food to travel from the mouth all the way to the rectum and anus. Defecation differs from person to person, though this should go anywhere between 3 and 21 times a week. A person who is constipated moves his/her bowel less than 3 times a week as his/her their digestive system is sluggish, causing the food to move slowly into the colon.

Difference between Constipation in Adults and Children

Learning what triggers the digestive system to act sluggishly is also relevant in understanding constipation symptoms and treatment. Constipation can be triggered by several factors which are slightly different between adults and children.

Possible causes of constipation in adults include:

  • Dehydration

  • Insufficient fiber intake

  • Inactive lifestyle, aging digestive system and pregnancy

  • Postponing bowel movement due to hygienic reasons or while traveling

  • Medications like analgesics, anti-cholinergic, anti-depressants, pain relievers, antacids, calcium and iron supplements, as well as diuretics.

  • Diseases such as IBS, diverticulosis, polyps and cancers

Possible causes of constipation in children are:

  • Willful withholding of stool due to painful bowel experience

  • Dietary changes

  • Changes in defecation schedule as they start school or due to stress or traveling

  • Milk allergy

  • Certain medications like anti-depressants, cold medicines and antacids

  • Medical conditions

  • Family history

Warning Signs of Constipation

Constipation symptoms and treatment also differ between adults and children. Even so, they share some remarkable signs such as passing hard, dry stools; incomplete or infrequent bowel movement; and straining during defecation. Depending on the diet, lifestyle and bowel habits of an adult, he or she may experience additional unpleasant symptoms such as blood-tinged stool, excessive gas, stomach bloating and abdominal pain. Children who are constipated could be bad-tempered and may exhibit distinct behaviors while holding back their bowels like squeezing their buttocks, holding their legs stiffly and with traces of sticky stool in their underwear. They may also complain about abdominal pain, loss of appetite and suffer bedwetting. Traces of blood could also be seen on the child’s stool.

Treatment Options for Constipation

Understanding the difference between constipation symptoms and treatment in adults and children is important in managing the condition effectively. Affected individuals and concerned parents should be cautious with prolonged use of laxatives. This is because laxative-dependence can occur and may trigger unpleasant symptoms like dehydration, dizziness, nausea, skin rashes, muscle cramps and irregular heartbeat. Whether the affected individual is an adult or a child, the concerned party should realize that it may take some time before it could be determined what works best for the patient.

The following are the treatment options for constipation:

  • Dietary changes

Adults are encouraged to go for high-fiber diets. However, parents are advised to give their constipated children well-balanced meals. Adults and children will also benefit from drinking more fluids.

  • Lifestyle modifications

In adults, this involves embracing a more active lifestyle with regular exercise which helps normalize bowel movements. On the other hand, parents should help their children defecate regularly by removing their fears with constipation as well as by putting them on the toilet for 10 minutes after meal.

  • Laxatives

Laxatives come in different types to help increase stool volume, stimulate intestinal contraction, soften stool as well as increase the stool’s salt concentration.

  • Enema

This is only considered when other conservative options have failed.

  • Surgery

This is the last resort in treating constipation that is caused by an underlying medical disorder.

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