Finding Effective Relief for Constipation
Constipation is the Rodney Dangerfield of common conditions—it rarely receives the respect it deserves. Just because it’s common and usually treatable with dietary changes or OTC laxatives, many people—patients and clinicians alike—think constipation is simply an annoying inconvenience.
It can, however, have serious health consequences. Straining affects cerebral and coronary circulations, and can cause syncope or transient ischemic attacks when the parasympathetic nervous system causes blood pressure to fall during bowel movements. Epidemiologists report that up to 8% of sudden cardiac deaths occur after patients with an existing circulatory issue strain to eject a stool; these patients may instinctively use the Valsalva maneuver (attempting to forcibly exhale while keeping the mouth and nose closed) to force hard feces from the rectum.1,2
Every individual has a different definition of constipation, which is not a diagnosis but a symptom constellation, because normal elimination patterns vary. Many people have a bowel movement daily, whereas others go more than once a day and some only a few times a week.3 With little consensus about the best way to manage constipation, treating it pre-sents a malodorous challenge (Table 14-6).
At any given time, up to one-fourth of Americans are constipated.7 Patients who are older than 65 years, pregnant, or who have the conditions listed in Table 1 are at increased risk.8-10 Patients harbor all kinds of myths about constipation, and pharmacists can help dispel those myths. For example, patients often believe that constipation causes the body to absorb poisonous substances from stools or causes disease. It does neither. Colonic irrigation, contrary to popular belief, does not remove toxins and can damage the colonic environment.11
Constipated patients often visit the local pharmacy for advice and OTC products to find relief. Pharmacists can help, but should be sure to refer patients to their primary care providers if the patient has10:
- Abrupt-onset constipation lasting 1 week or more, or intermittent periods of constipation over 2 months
- Bloody (maroon or tarry) stool
- Nausea, vomiting, or fever
- Severe pain with bowel movements
- Unexplained weight loss
Start with Lifestyle
Pharmacists should begin by instructing patients to find a bathroom whenever the urge to defecate happens. Most people are creatures of habit, and experience a gastrocolic response after breakfast or dinner.3,5 Ignoring urges may make patients physically uncomfortable, and it also weakens bowel signals over time.
Next, patients should increase dietary fiber to more than 25 g daily. This sounds easy, but many patients have no idea how to determine foods’ fiber content.3 Showing them how to find this information on labels and on the Internet is simple and ensures better adherence. Note that in slow-transit constipation or diverticulosis, fiber may worsen constipation, at least initially.12-14
Whole fruits and vegetables, beans, bran, and whole-grain products are the best sources, but advise patients to increase fiber slowly to avoid gas and bloating. Prunes are an easy, effective “neutraceutical.” Many patients will be unreceptive to suggestions that prunes can end constipation, but many patients have never tried prunes and base their opinions on hearsay. Calling prunes “dried plums” can remove the stigma, and explaining that they contain natural laxatives—sorbitol and dihydrophenylisatin—may convince patients to try them.15,16
Drinking 2 to 4 glasses of water or other fluids above normal intake is also considered important. Lack of physical activity can contribute to constipation. Increasing exercise to at least 20 minutes daily may improve regularity and also decrease stress. Note that little evidence supports these 2 recommendations, but they seem to help.17-19
Medication side effects should be ruled out as causes. If a prescription medication is the cause, referral to or collaboration with the prescriber is in order. OTC calcium and iron can also lead to constipation.
Many patients will want or need immediate relief. Various enemas (eg, mineral oil, phosphate, water, or saline) and suppositories (eg, bisacodyl, glycerin) can provide that relief, but it’s important to review proper use.10
Other OTC laxatives work in hours or days, and are intended for short-term use. These fall roughly into 5 categories (Table 23,14,20-22).
When counseling about OTC laxatives, pharmacists need to caution patients to follow package directions and avoid overuse. Using laxatives to cleanse bowels routinely is a dangerous practice; it can alter the gut’s normal physiologic functioning.10
Acute constipation occurs frequently, but fortunately most problems can be treated with OTC products. Untreated, it may lead to chronic, complicated constipation. If chronic constipation develops, patients may experience pelvic floor problems involving bladder voiding difficulties, sexual dysfunction, and pain syndromes.7
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About the Author
Ms. Wick is a visiting professor at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy and a freelance clinical writer.