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Constipation occurs in 15% of adults and up to one-third of older adults and is a common reason for seeking medical attention. It is more common in women. Older individuals are predisposed due to comorbid medical conditions, medications, poor eating habits, decreased mobility, and in some cases, inability to sit on a toilet (bed-bound patients). The first step in evaluating the patient is to determine what is meant by “constipation.” Patients may define constipation as infrequent stools (fewer than three in a week), hard or lumpy stools, excessive straining, or a sense of incomplete evacuation. Table 15–3 summarizes the many causes of constipation, which are discussed below.

Table 15–3.Causes of constipation in adults.


A. Primary Constipation

Most patients have constipation that cannot be attributed to any structural abnormalities or systemic disease. These patients may be further categorized as having normal colonic transit time, slow transit, or defecatory disorders (with or without slow colonic transit). Normal colonic transit time is approximately 35 hours; more than 72 hours is significantly abnormal. Slow colonic transit is commonly idiopathic (due to dysfunction of the enteric nervous system) but may be part of a generalized GI dysmotility syndrome. Slow transit is more common in women, some of whom have a history of psychosocial problems (depression, anxiety, eating disorder, childhood trauma) or sexual abuse. Normal defecation requires coordination between relaxation of the anal sphincter and pelvic floor musculature while abdominal pressure is increased. Patients with defecatory disorders (also known dyssynergic defecation)—women more often than men—have impaired relaxation or paradoxical contraction of the anal sphincter and/or pelvic floor muscles during attempted defecation that impedes the bowel movement. This problem may be acquired during childhood or adulthood. Patients may complain of excessive straining, sense of incomplete evacuation, need for digital manipulation, or adoption of a non-sitting (eg, standing) position during defecation. Patients with predominant complaints of abdominal pain or bloating with chronic idiopathic constipation are more appropriately given a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with constipation.

B. Secondary Constipation

Constipation may be caused by systemic disorders, medications, or obstructing colonic lesions. Systemic disorders that can cause constipation include neurologic gut ...

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