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Patient Information

Constipation is defined as infrequent bowel movements requiring straining (generally every three or more days). The stool is often harder, making it difficult or painful to pass. When it lasts for several weeks or longer, it’s characterized as chronic constipation.

When chronic constipation makes an impact on a patient’s quality of life, WakeMed’s gastroenterologists and colorectal surgeons use their expertise and experience to find the underlying cause of the constipation — and provide effective treatment.

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What Are the Symptoms of Constipation?

Symptoms of constipation can include:

  • Passing fewer than three stools a week
  • Having hard, dry stools
  • Straining during bowel movements
  • A feeling that not all stool has been emptied

Nearly everyone will have constipation at some point — but if you’re experiencing changes in your bowel habits, it’s a good idea to see a gastroenterologist.

Chronic constipation can be caused by the slow movement of stool, whether by a blockage or neurological issues in the colon or rectum. Pelvic floor and gastrointestinal disorders can also play a part. Certain medications and health issues can also make a person more susceptible to constipation.

How is Constipation Diagnosed?

Because of the wide range of causes, our doctors will start by taking a full medical history and performing a physical examination. It’s a good idea to track your bowel habits for a few weeks before seeing your doctor, and to bring that information to your appointment. 

Diagnostic tests to help us diagnose constipation and its underlying cause may include:

  • Blood tests
  • X-ray
  • Colonoscopy, in which a lighted, flexible tube looks at the inner lining of the colon to check for inflammation
  • Sigmoidoscopy, which is similar to a colonoscopy but looks at the just the rectum and lower part of the colon
  • Tests to evaluate the anal sphincter muscle
  • Colon transit study, which looks at how food is moving through the colon
  • Gastric emptying studies, which sees how quickly food leaves the stomach
  • Small bowel transit studies

How Is Constipation Treated?

To treat constipation—as well as to prevent it from happening in the future—our team will start with lifestyle recommendations, including:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Eating high-fiber foods, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • Staying active by exercising daily
  • Managing stress

Over-the-counter laxatives may also be recommended, including fiber supplements, stimulants, stool softeners, and enemas. The gastroenterologist can help determine what type may be the best to try.

Prescription medications can also be ordered by the doctor if symptoms aren’t improving.

Learn about constipation treatments for children.

When is Surgery Needed for Constipation?

In rare cases, or when a patient doesn’t respond to medication, surgery can be considered to remove part or all of the colon. At WakeMed, our patients can have minimally invasive, laparoscopic-assisted surgeries. This allows a patient to have less pain and discomfort, smaller incision, quicker recovery and fewer complications. 

Learn more about what to expect from colorectal surgery.