The three most common questions asked around the water cooler are usually about the weather; the score of last night’s game; and how many bowel movements you’ve had in the past week. Well, perhaps not the last one. In fact, what’s considered normal frequency for bowel movements varies widely among people. In general, however, you’re probably experiencing constipation if:

  • you pass fewer than three stools a week,
  • you strain while passing stools,
  • you have a feeling of incomplete evacuation of the bowels after a bowel movement,
  • your stools are hard and dry, and
  • you have had two of those signs and symptoms for at least three of the past six months.

Although constipation may be bothersome, it’s usually not serious. Most people who have constipation don’t seek a doctor’s care. However, chronic constipation may lead to complications or be a sign of a serious underlying disorder.  See your doctor if you experience an unexplained onset of constipation or change in bowel habits, or if your symptoms are severe and last longer than three weeks. Also seek medical care if you experience any of the following signs or symptoms, which might indicate a more serious health problem:

  • bowel movements occurring more than three days apart,
  • despite corrective changes in diet or exercise,
  • intense abdominal pain,
  • blood in your stool,
  • constipation that alternates with diarrhea,
  • rectal pain,
  • thin, pencil-like stools,
  • unexplained weight loss

Several factors can cause an intestinal slowdown, including:

  • inadequate fluid and fibre intake or dehydration,
  • ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement,
  • lack of physical activity,
  • changes in lifestyle or routine,
  • frequent use or misuse of laxatives,
  • certain medications, or
  • some diseases.

Treatment for constipation depends on the underlying condition. Adding dietary fibre and fluid is one option. The best way of adding fiber to the diet is increasing the quantity of fruits and vegetables that you eat. This means a minimum of five servings of fruits or vegetables every day. Increasing activity in sedentary individuals may also increase bowel regularity. A variety of laxatives are available. Choosing the right product and regimen is important to ensure normal function. Some medications, if used too much, can lead to “lazy bowel”. It is best to discuss the available options with your doctor or pharmacist. Take care of yourselves and each other.