Recognizing When Constipation Is an Emergency

A bloated belly and abdominal discomfort are telltale signs of constipation when it’s been a few days since your last bowel movement. While occasional sluggish bowels usually aren’t a cause for concern, there are warning signs of a bigger problem that you should be aware of. Knowing when to sound the alarm and visit a doctor can prevent complications down the line.

What’s normal when it comes to bowel movements?

Here at the Illinois Gastroenterology Group, we ease patient’s anxiety when we let them know that it’s perfectly normal to experience constipation once in a while. The frequency of normal bowel movements varies widely from person to person. The trick is to be alert whenever there is a change in what’s normal for you.

Bowel movement frequency is usually related to lifestyle. The type of food you eat, how often you eat, how much water you drink, and even your exercise patterns can influence how often you move your bowels.

The term constipation simply means infrequent bowel movements. What is infrequent for you may be perfectly normal for someone else. That said, anywhere from 1-2 bowel movements a day to 3-5 bowel movements a week is common.

What causes constipation?

When you’re constipated, bowel movements occur less often or cause more strain than usual. Chronic constipation involves hard stools that are difficult to pass and occur at least once a week. This may signal an underlying issue such as outlet defecation syndrome.

When you come in to see us for your constipation, your gastroenterologist performs a comprehensive evaluation to hone in on the cause of your bowel issues. Constipation has various causes, including

A change in eating habits can play a role, too, such as suddenly eating large amounts of cheese.

When these issues cause or contribute to constipation, lifestyle changes can help. Sometimes the causes of constipation aren’t really within your control such as:

How to know if you’re constipated

Consider what is typical for you and ask yourself a couple of questions such as, “Am I having fewer bowel movements than usual?” “Do I notice other digestive symptoms like bloating and abdominal discomfort?” “Am I straining more than usual and spending more time in the bathroom?” Answering these questions will give you an idea as to whether or not you’re experiencing constipation.

In general, as long as you’re having a few regular bowel movements a week that aren’t difficult to pass, there’s usually nothing to worry about.

When is constipation a concern?

Less than two bowel movements a week or regularly straining during bowel movements is a hint that you may need to see a gastroenterologist to get to the root of the problem. A sudden and significant decline in frequency is another reason to visit a doctor for a checkup. 

That is, if you typically have two bowel movements a day and you notice that you’re suddenly having two bowel movements each week, you may want to have things checked out. Since there’s no “true normal,” it’s wise to visit a gastroenterologist if you notice a significant change in what’s normal for you.

Is constipation ever an emergency?

Some serious issues such as bowel obstruction can cause constipation. If you have any of these warning signs, it’s time to seek immediate medical assistance:

If you have infrequent bowel movements and notice these symptoms, it’s best to schedule an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists right away.

Is it possible to prevent constipation?

Drinking plenty of water, eating enough fiber-rich foods, and getting regular exercise is our best advice for reducing the risk of constipation. Of course, constipation may be a sign of a chronic bowel condition, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. When this is the case, we can discuss ways to best manage the condition.

Visit one of our top-quality gastroenterologists if you suspect an intestinal problem. At Illinois Gastroenterology Group we use a range of diagnostic tests to determine the cause of gastrointestinal issues. Call our office to schedule an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists, at one of our offices in Elgin, South Elgin or Lake in the Hills. 

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