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X-Rays and Other Tests Help Get to the Root of Constipation

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Constipation related image Photo: Getty Images

If you are having yet another day of constipation and are worried that it might be an indication of something more serious, rest assured that doctors rely on a number of different diagnostic tools for gastrointestinal woes. Hopefully, from the results of these procedures you will know why you are frequently getting that blocked-up feeling and whether it’s related to something else going on with your body.

First, though, ask yourself the questions that a health care practitioner is likely to bring up: Do you drink enough water? Do you add fiber to your diet through fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nutritional supplements? Do milk products upset your stomach? Do you exercise regularly? Do you have good bathroom habits? Have you been under a lot of stress? Have you become too reliant on over-the-counter laxatives?

Then assess how bad your constipation is. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) defines constipation as having three or fewer bowel movements in a week, or passing stool that is hard, dry, small and possibly causing pain when you try to eliminate it.

Certainly it could be something simple that explains why you are suffering from constipation: pregnancy, recovering from childbirth, taking calcium or iron supplements, or taking certain painkillers and antidepressants, are all circumstances commonly associated with constipation. Your doctor will want to know whether to rule out these factors.

On the other hand, constipation can be a sign of problems with the muscles and nerves in the intestine, rectum and anus, the NDDIC said. It might also signal irritable bowel syndrome, an often painful feeling in the gut thought to be caused by certain foods, stress, bacterial infections or other possibilities.

The NDDIC pointed out that constipation is a symptom, not a disease in itself, and its occurrence with certain diseases and conditions is quite common. The list includes: diabetes, hypothyroidism, diverticular disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, lupus and scleroderma.

Here are five tests delineated by the NDDIC for use when patients complain of constipation:

Sigmoidoscopy, in which a thin, flexible tube called a sigmoidoscope is inserted into the rectum to view the lower third of your large intestine.

Colonoscopy, which uses a longer tube than a sigmoidoscopy and offers a better view of the entire large intestine. The procedure requires anesthesia.

Colorectal transit study, a fancy name for swallowing small capsules that are studied by X-ray for several days as they move through the intestine and anus.

Anorectal function test, during which the doctor inserts a small balloon into the anus to see if you can push it out.

Defecography test, which uses X-ray views of your rectum and anus as you push out a small bit of soft paste.

These tests might be used in combination with each other or in combination with things like stool samples, urine tests, digital rectal exam, barium enema X-ray, ultrasound and other procedures as part of a full physical examination. The tests might be conducted by a family practice doctor or by a gastrointestinal specialist.

Keep in mind, though, that a doctor might recommend lifestyle changes and follow-up evaluations before ordering any kind of GI testing.


“What I need to know about Constipation.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. Sept. 12, 2011. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/constipation_ez/

“Constipation.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. Sept. 12, 2011. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/constipation/

Reviewed September 12, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



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