Constipation is a condition in which a person experiences a change in normal bowel habits, characterized by a decrease in frequency and/or passage of hard, dry stools. Constipation can also refer to difficult defecation or to sluggish action of the bowels.
The most common cause of constipation is dietary, which is discussed below. However, constipation may be a component of irritable bowel syndrome or other conditions ranging from drug side effects to physical immobility. Serious diseases, including colon cancer, may sometimes first appear as bowel blockage leading to acute constipation. However, constipation itself does not appear to increase the risk of colon cancer, contrary to popular opinion.1
Although dietary and other natural approaches discussed below are often effective, individuals with constipation should be evaluated by a doctor to rule out potentially serious causes.
Symptoms of constipation include infrequent stools, hard stools, and excessive straining to move the bowels. Frequency of bowel movements and severity of symptoms may vary from person to person.
Exercise may increase the muscular contractions of the intestine, promoting elimination.2 Nonetheless, the effect of exercise on constipation remains unclear.3
Anecdotal reports have claimed that acupuncture is beneficial in the treatment of constipation.4, 5, 6, 7 However, a small, controlled study of eight people with constipation concluded that six acupuncture treatments over two weeks did not improve bowel function during the course of the study.8 Placebo-controlled trials of longer duration are needed to determine whether acupuncture is a useful treatment for constipation.
Biofeedback techniques have been shown to significantly increase the frequency of bowel movements among women with chronic constipation.9
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2014.