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Constipation

Updated 13 July 2018

When is constipation a medical emergency?

Constipation is always uncomfortable, but when do you need medical intervention? Here are five examples of when you should seek help.

Constipation is mostly a short-term problem that can be resolved at home, but it’s important to know when it requires emergency care.

Faeces can become hardened and lodged in the rectum. This is the most severe outcome of constipation and can be linked to complications such as bleeding and bowel obstruction.

Bowel obstruction occurs when your small or large intestine becomes partially or fully blocked. The stretching of the intestines can cause pain, a rupture and bleeding, requiring urgent medical attention.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, the number of visits to emergency units in America hospitals has increased over the past decade and there is an increasing trend towards hospital visits with constipation-related complications. 

When you experience the following symptoms, you should seek immediate medical assistance: 

1. When you have unbearable abdominal pain

When your constipation is coupled with crippling abdominal pain, this might be the symptom of a larger issue such as appendicitis or a bowel obstruction, which definitely requires a trip to the ER, according to Robynne Chutkan, a gastroenterologist in Maryland, USA, as reported by Women's Health.

woman with severe abdominal pain

2. When you are vomiting

Vomiting when you are constipated could possibly be a sign of faecal impaction, where the stool in the blocked colon can’t be moved, according to Harvard Medical School. The backed up waste can cause vomiting. This is extremely dangerous and requires urgent medical attention.  

woman vomiting in toilet

3. When your stomach is severely bloated

Painful bloating of the stomach can also be a sign of a serious bowel obstruction. Bloating caused by constipation can often be treated at home and might clear up in time. However, if your bloating doesn’t clear up, it could be bowel obstruction or blockage.

runner holding stomach

4. When there is blood in your stool

The presence of blood in your stool is not always reason to panic. According to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, there are several minor causes of rectal bleeding, such as fissures, haemorrhoids, rectal ulcers or rectal inflammation.

But if you are constipated and discover that the stools you do pass are tarry and maroon in colour, it requires urgent medical care, states the Cleveland Clinic.

man holding toilet paper

5. When your constipation has lasted for longer than two weeks

According to the Cleveland Clinic, any case of constipation lasting for longer than two weeks without relief from home remedies or changes in diet should be checked out by a doctor. If your stools become lodged in the rectum, it can lead to faecal incontinence, which will occur when mucus or fluids leak around the stools.

Chronic constipation can also cause your health in general to take a knock. When you suffer from chronic constipation, you are unable to get rid of excess waste that builds up in your colon. This can end up making you sick as your intestines will become overloaded, not allowing your body to absorb crucial nutrients.

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