Chronic constipation refers to infrequent bowel movements or inability to pass stools that persists for several weeks or longer. Constipation is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. Though occasional constipation is very common, some people experience chronic constipation that can interfere with their ability to function normally.
Signs and symptoms of chronic constipation include:
- Passing fewer than three stools per week
- Having lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to have bowel movements
Constipation most commonly occurs when stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract, causing it to become hard and dry. Dehydration and some medications can sometimes cause occasional constipation.
Chronic constipation may be caused by various digestive conditions, including Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and colon cancer. Sometimes, it can be the result of an intestinal obstruction or blockage. Conditions that affect fluid balance, including diabetes, may also cause constipation.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose chronic constipation include:
- Sigmoidoscopy – a procedure used to examine the rectum and lower colon
- Colonoscopy – this enables your doctor to examine the entire colon
- Colonic transit study – a procedure in which you swallow capsule containing markers that monitor your intestinal function over several days
Treatment for chronic constipation usually begins with diet and lifestyle changes, including increasing fiber intake, increasing fluid (water) intake and exercising most days of the week.
If constipation does not improve with these changes alone, your physician may recommend medications like fiber supplements or stool softeners. Other prescriptions may also be recommended to draw water into your intestines.