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Constipation

Updated 27 September 2018

When should you use laxatives?

Serious constipation may ultimately lead to faecal impaction. Fortunately there are effective ways of dealing with the problem that don't involve laxatives.

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There are many different views of constipation. Some people believe that not having a daily bowel movement constitutes constipation. This is not true –  some people have bowel movements three times a day, while others “go” only about twice a week. If your stools are soft and pass easily, you are not constipated.

People who are under the impression that they are constipated may resort to laxatives,.

But when should you, and when shouldn't you use laxatives? 

Use laxatives

Almost everyone will suffer from constipation at some point in their lives, but in most cases it is quickly resolved. 

An adult who has not had a bowel movement in three days or a child who has not had a bowel movement in four days is considered constipated.

When experiencing constipation, rather than addressing their lifestylepeople may turn to laxatives.

There are many different kinds, most of which are available over-the-counter without a prescription. 

According to NHS Choices, laxatives should only be used occasionally and for short periods of time. You should also stop taking laxatives when constipation improves.

Faecal impaction

According to the GI Society, the regular use or abuse of laxatives, with the exception of bulk-forming agents and stool softeners, can lead to serious dysfunction of bowel motility, such as intestinal paralysis, cathartic colon, lazy or laxative gut, irritable bowel syndrome, pancreatitis, and other problems.

In the case of chronic constipation, it is better to seek the care of a medical professional before self-treating with over-the-counter laxatives. 

The most serious constipation scenario is faecal impaction, when the stool hardens in the rectum and becomes lodged. Only then, in many cases, will people seek medical help.

According to Medline Plus, faecal impaction often occurs in people who have been constipated and using laxatives for a long time.

This is more likely to happen when the laxatives are suddenly stopped because the muscles of the intestines have forgotten how to move stool on their own.

Lack of movement, certain diseases and some medications increase the risk of feacal impaction.

Good bowel movements without laxatives

Health24 suggests these lifestyle changes to help avoid or find relief from constipation:

  • Add more fibre to your diet by eating more fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole-grain or bran products.
  • Eat more foods that act as natural laxatives effect such as prunes and linseeds (flaxseeds).
  • Add a bulking agent to your diet. Examples include bran and psyllium husk, which work by increasing the volume of the stool, making it easier to pass. Always drink enough water when using bulking agents.
  • Drink plenty of water. Try to drink 6–8 glasses of water daily in addition to other beverages.
  • Decrease your alcohol and caffeine (coffee, tea and certain carbonated drinks) intake. These substances are diuretics, which means they remove water from the body.  
  • Exercise regularly, as this can help activate bowel movements.
  • Don’t delay if you feel the need to have a bowel movement, as this can worsen constipation. 
  • Try placing your feet on a low stool while going to the toilet, so that your knees are above your hips. This can make it easier to pass stools. 

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