Constipation Gripping the Nation?>
Be Well

Constipation Gripping the Nation

by Keng Lam, MD

You might think that constipation is simply a nuisance, but it also has negative effects on Americans' quality of life—and wallets. A study published in February in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that constipation, especially severe constipation, is becoming much more common than it was some two decades ago, and leading to an increasing number of hospitalizations. The study authors describe this health problem as “an escalating concern to the healthcare system.”

Using data from the National Inpatient Sample—the largest publicly available database on inpatients from a sampling of U.S. hospitals—researchers from Harvard University and Macquarie University in Australia found that the number of people who were admitted with constipation as the primary problem increased by almost 130 percent between 1997 and 2010. The number of people admitted to hospitals jumped from 21,190 patients to 48,450 during that time period.

As estimated by the researchers, the total costs—adjusted for inflation—of caring for those hospitalized with constipation rose from $188.1 million in 1997 to $851.7 million in 2010. For comparison’s sake, the latter amount of money is enough to hire almost 6,400 primary care doctors in Utah (which is three times its total number of primary care doctors). Those are only the costs from the National Inpatient Sample. According to the authors, “the entire aggregate hospital costs in 2010 in the United States was over $4.25 billion.”

As might be expected, people age 65 and over accounted for the largest percentage of cases in the study. But the study also found an increase in the number of children up to 17 years old being hospitalized for constipation—and the number more than tripled between 1997 and 2010.

Why constipation has become a more serious problem is unclear. The authors suggested that the causes may be related to increased rates of obesity, less exercise and more use of medications associated with constipation, such as narcotics. We need more research to find the exact reasons.

It’s important to note that constipation is preventable and treatable. The earlier this condition is addressed, the less likely it is that constipation will become a serious concern. If you are having irregular, infrequent or difficult bowel movements, be sure to consult your doctor. Finding the right cause and obtaining a treatment plan is the first step to recovery. You should also ask your doctor to help you with a long-term strategy to prevent this problem. You’ll be much better off, and so will our health care system.