(BPT) – It can be uncomfortable to talk about what happens behind bathroom doors. But if you can set aside the awkwardness for a moment, your bathroom habits may actually be an important indicator of your gastrointestinal (GI) health.
One of the most frequent digestive complaints in the U.S. – and one of the most common reasons people visit the doctor – is constipation. While constipation may not sound like a medical condition, studies have found the annual cost of treating constipation in the U.S. is $ 235 million, and data suggest people with constipation experience activity impairment and a loss of work productivity.
How can your bathroom habits provide insight into whether or not you may be constipated? Checking the frequency of your bowel movements (BMs) is a good first step. A typical schedule of BMs may vary from three times per day to three times per week, depending on the person. Many people experience occasional irregularity, but constipation is generally defined as a condition in which a person has fewer than three bowel movements a week, has difficulty having a bowel movement – or both. Some people may also feel bloated or feel abdominal discomfort. Other signs of constipation may include straining, hard or lumpy stools, or incomplete BMs.
Beyond frequency, the consistency, color, and shape of BMs also tell a revealing story about what’s going on in your body. Believe it or not, there’s a scale designed to help you understand your poop. The Bristol Stool Form Scale is a tool that classifies BMs into seven numbered types that can help identify irregularities such as constipation. For most people, a healthy bowel movement is soft and smooth, like a sausage or a snake. On the seven-point Bristol Stool Form Scale, that’s somewhere between a #3 and a #5. The two extremes on this scale are constipation (#1) and diarrhea (#7). In short, an ideal #2 may not be a #2.
The Bristol Stool Form Scale is not intended to serve as a diagnostic tool, and anyone experiencing symptoms should consult a physician.
If your BMs are more like a #2 than comfortably in the #3 to #5 range on the Bristol Stool Form Scale, it could suggest a medical condition, such as constipation. And that warrants a discussion with your doctor. Despite the embarrassment, it’s an important conversation to have.
“When it comes to discussing your GI health with your doctor, be candid about the symptoms you’re experiencing – even those that are a bit awkward to discuss,” says Anish Sheth, M.D., gastroenterologist and co-author of the book, What’s Your Poo Telling You? “An open conversation can help your doctor determine how best to manage your condition.”
Another reason to talk openly with your doctor about GI symptoms is because, in some cases, constipation symptoms that keep coming back can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as bowel obstruction, hypothyroidism, cancer or certain neurological diseases. Constipation along with abdominal pain can also be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C), which impacts as many as 13 million adults in the U.S. Even more common is chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC), the chronic presence of constipation symptoms. The term “idiopathic” means the cause of the constipation is not known and not due to an underlying illness or medication. As many as 35 million adults may suffer from CIC.
It’s important to speak candidly with your doctor about your symptoms so he or she can try to identify the cause of the problem and determine how best to manage your condition. Many sufferers can manage the symptoms of occasional constipation with dietary and lifestyle changes, such as increasing fiber or water intake and exercising regularly. Over-the-counter medicines are approved to treat occasional constipation, and prescription medications are approved for the treatment of IBS-C and CIC.
For those feeling squeamish about discussing their symptoms with their doctor, Dr. Sheth recommends writing down a list of symptoms, how often they occur, how long they have been occurring, and what treatments have been tried. He also recommends BM tracking apps for smartphone users.
For more information, including tips for preparing for your doctor visit, please visit www.AboutYourGut.com.