Constipation is a frequent gastrointestinal problem that can cause a lot of discomfort and put strain on the digestive system. Being constipated means not being able to have regular bowel movements but it can also include having difficulty passing stools, hard stools, or a feeling of blockage or of incomplete passage after a bowel movement. Fortunately, constipation is usually temporary, but chronic constipation can cause further problems or can be a sign of an underlying disorder. A number of factors can cause constipation, including not drinking enough fluids, eating a poor diet or not enough fiber, not enough physical activity, illness, long term use of laxatives, or it can be a result of certain medications or diseases.
In Western medicine, the solution for constipation in most cases is simple and involves eliminating the factors that are causing the problem. In other words, eating lots of dietary fibers (vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains), drinking a lot of fluids, getting regular exercise, and taking time for the toilet and not ignoring the urge for a bowel movement. However, in some cases, constipation can be a chronic problem that isn’t easy to resolve in spite of our efforts. This is where acupuncture can help.
In Chinese medicine (TCM), constipation results from a stagnation of internal heat and dryness resulting in a lack of fluids, stagnation of the flow of energy from emotional upsets, deficiency of qi-energy or blood from internal injury, strain, stress or a lack of physical exercise. Constipation is classified into five categories of imbalance that inhibit the proper function of the large intestine, as well as the spleen, stomach and kidneys. In order to understand what type of constipation we are dealing with, we look at other symptoms that a person may also be experiencing along with the constipation.
- Heat constipation will have added symptoms of flushed, red complexion, fever, thirst, dark, scanty urine, halitosis, abdominal distention and sometimes even pain, and elimination every several days.
- Qi stagnation type will have symptoms of frequent belching, rib distention or pain, reduced food intake, and abdominal distention.
- Qi deficiency type will show a difficulty in elimination with the desire to go, lack of strength to move the bowels, stools will be neither dry nor soft, shortness of breath, fatigue, spontaneous sweating.
- Blood deficiency constipation will have other symptoms of dry hard stool, pale complexion, dizziness and vertigo, palpitations, pale lips and nails, pale tongue.
- With cold type constipation there will be difficulty eliminating, large quantities of urine, pale complexion, dizziness and vertigo, cold limbs, a preference for heat and aversion to cold, abdominal coldness and pain, and cold achy low back and knees.
It is interesting that Chinese medicine has such specific differentiations for constipation, whereas Western medicine sees all of the different types of constipation as the single same problem. Once again, it is this very specific diagnosis that makes acupuncture so effective. Because we are pinpointing where exactly the problem lies, we really get an understanding of what pattern of imbalance is causing the constipation to occur. From there it is a matter of targeting the imbalance and correcting it in order to restore the body’s normal, healthy functioning. This in turn, helps to resolve not only the problem of constipation and improve digestion, but also help with the various and seemingly unrelated symptoms that tend to go along with the constipation.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.