Constipation means different things to different people. For many people it simply means infrequent bowel movements. For others constipation means hard stools or difficulty passing stools.
Medically, constipation is defined as fewer than three bowel movements per week. Severe constipation is defined as less than one bowel movement per week. Constipation can be caused by the slow passage of digesting food through any part of the intestine. However, more often, the slowing occurs in the colon. It is important to distinguish acute (recent onset) constipation from chronic (long duration) constipation.
It is necessary to seek urgent medical attention for acute constipation because a serious medical illness may be the underlying cause such as tumors of the colon. Constipation also requires an immediate assessment if it is accompanied by rectal bleeding, cramps, nausea, loss of weight and abdominal pain.
In contrast, the evaluation of chronic constipation may not be urgent, particularly if simple measures bring relief.
It is necessary to seek urgent medical attention for acute constipation because a serious medical illness may be the underlying cause.