Constipation affects approximately 2 percent of the population in the US; the elderly are more commonly affected. Constipation refers to bowel movements that are infrequent or hard to pass. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), constipation is defined as having a bowel movement less than 3 times a week.
Laxatives can help relieve constipation. Overuse of certain laxatives can lead to dependency and decreased bowel function. In general bulkforming laxatives, also referred to as fiber supplements, are the gentlest on the body and safest to use long term. However, seniors must remember to drink adequate amounts of water when taking fiber supplements like Metamucil.
Seniors need to call their physicians immediately if they have sudden constipation with abdominal cramps and are unable to pass gas. It is important to seek help if seniors have blood in the stools, constipation lasting more than 2 weeks, require use of laxatives for several weeks, experience rectal pain, unexplained weight loss, or severe abdominal pain–these may be signs of a serious underlying medical condition.
What causes constipation?
- Not drinking enough liquids
- Low-fiber diet
- Lack of physical activity
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
- Medical conditions — affecting the gastrointestinal, endocrine, or nervous system
- Medications — iron or calcium supplements, narcotics, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and certain medications to lower blood pressure.
Which tests may help diagnose the cause of constipation?
Based on history and physical examination, a physician may order some of the following tests:
- Blood tests including a complete blood count and basic metabolic profile
- Barium enema
- Stool studies
- X-rays of the abdomen
- Anorectal manometry (pressure measurements of the anus and rectum)
What are the complications of chronic constipation?
- Anal fissures
- Fecal impaction
- Bowel obstruction
- Rectal prolapse
How can seniors prevent constipation?
- Drink at least 8 glasses of water each day
- Eat lots of fiber
- Exercise regularly
- Do not ignore the urge to use the restroom
- Eat foods that promote bowel movement: prunes, apples, papaya, banana and cabbage