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Constipation

Updated 25 April 2019

6 possible causes of chronic constipation

A bout of constipation from time to time is unpleasant, but completely normal. Chronic constipation, however, is a matter that needs to be addressed by a doctor.

Constipation, as unpleasant and embarrassing as it may be, usually passes spontaneously within a day or two, or can be remedied with a mild laxative. But what if your inability to “go” becomes more frequent?

Chronic constipation can be classified as infrequent bowel movements that occur for a period of several weeks or even longer.

We all differ when it comes to bowel movements, and what might be normal for one person might be abnormal for someone else.

With chronic constipation, you might still have bowel movements, but they can be difficult to pass, and hard or lumpy. This is described as “functional” constipation – while you are still passing stools, you're backed up and not completely emptying your colon.

What can cause chronic constipation?

There are a number of possible causes of chronic constipation which can’t be fixed with lifestyle changes such as adding more fibre to the diet. Even though chronic constipation might not necessarily signal an underlying condition, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor and try to pinpoint the cause.

Here are six underlying conditions that could be causing your chronic constipation:

1. Irritable bowel syndrome

Constipation is often a main symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Experts are still unsure about what exactly causes IBS, and it can be tricky to diagnose. If constipation is caused by IBS, you might also experience other symptoms such as abdominal pain, severe bloating and flatulence – for extended periods of time or after eating certain foods.

2. Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)

Hypothyroidism is a condition where the thyroid gland is not producing enough thyroid hormones. When there is an insufficient amount of these hormones, the body’s chemical reactions slow down – including your digestion.

Hypothyroidism will also cause you to experience symptoms such as extreme fatigue, weight gain, thinning hair, a lack of concentration, a puffy face and brittle nails.

3. Diabetes

Constipation isn’t often associated with diabetes, but when the hormone insulin is not produced in sufficient quantities, your body will experience a lag in processes, like breaking down blood sugar.

Constipation can occur as a result of diabetes because of damage to the nerves which control your digestive tract. Diabetes needs to be diagnosed as soon as possible. If you experience chronic constipation, along with symptoms such as constant thirst, sudden weight loss, fatigue and frequent urination, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

4. Parkinson’s disease

Constipation is a common side-effect of Parkinson’s disease, as this condition causes damage to nerve cells that regulate body movements, including your digestive system. Parkinson’s disease is also linked to the lack of a neurotransmitter –dopamine. This impairs movement throughout the body and can make your bowel movements slow and rigid.

Parkinson’s disease will also present with the following symptoms: tremors or trembling in the hands, arms and jaw, rigid limbs and slow movements. Symptoms start slowly and develop gradually.

5. Mental disorders such as depression or anxiety

When you experience depression, your diet and exercise regime may change, which can lead to a change in bowel movements, while anxiety can put your body in constant stress, which also affects your digestive system.

Besides physical symptoms, you should also pay attention to any persistent feelings of hopelessness or despair, uncontrolled anger, a loss of interest in hobbies, suicidal thoughts and fatigue.

6. Bowel or colon cancer

A sudden change in normal bowel movements is often considered a red flag and a key symptom in cancers of the stomach and colon.

If your constipation starts suddenly, isn't rectified by lifestyle changes, and if you observe dark, tarry blood in your stool, you need to see your doctor.

These six conditions are only some of the possible underlying reasons for chronic constipation, and there are many other possible causes. If you are concerned about constipation, it's always a good idea to consult your doctor. 

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