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Tips for Managing Constipation with MS

By Matt Cavallo

When we think about symptoms of MS, the most common systems that come to mind are problems with mobility or vision, difficulties with memory, speech or other cognitive issues, as well as, difficulties with bladder and sexual function. Did you know that a large number of people living with MS suffer with bowel problems as well? 

For some reason, bowel function is always hard to talk about. You may have no trouble telling a person about your difficulties getting around, but when it comes to talking about what goes on in the bathroom, let’s just say that most people like to keep that private. While it is difficult to talk about, you are not alone.

According to a research study, nearly two-thirds of MS patients have at least one persistent gastrointestinal problem. Constipation, fecal incontinence, and dysphagia are the most common gastrointestinal problems reported by MS patients. Constipation was the most common gastrointestinal problem reported, affecting 36.6 percent of the MS patients in the study. 

If you are a person living with MS and chronic constipation, there is help. It is important to understand that constipation can lead to other problems. Regular movements help the body expel toxic waste from our system. Without those movements, the toxins and poisons that we have ingested can get into the blood stream and make us sick. Constipation also is very uncomfortable to live with and painful.

You may not realize that you are suffering from chronic constipation. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are the signs that you are suffering from chronic constipation:
  • Passing fewer than three stools a week
  • Having lumpy or hard stools
  • Straining to have bowel movements
  • Feeling as though there's a blockage in your rectum that prevents bowel movements
  • Feeling as though you can't completely empty the stool from your rectum
  • Needing help to empty your rectum, such as using your hands to press on your abdomen and using a finger to remove stool from your rectum

If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, please talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help. And while it may feel embarrassing to discuss bowel problems, the relief you will feel outweighs the momentary embarrassment. You’ll also find that once you talk to your doctor, it actually feels good to talk about it. Constipation effects your mood, your willingness to participate in activities, and your diet. Really, it effects everything, so talking about it is vital to maintaining your health.

What are the things that you can do outside of the doctor’s office to manage constipation on your own? Here are some tips for managing constipation with MS. 

1. Drink your recommended daily fluids. We were told from the time we were little to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. How many of us do that? There is a correlation between dehydration and constipation, so consuming the recommended amount of water can help keep you regular. Warm drinks such as tea, coffee, cider, and warm water with lemon can also help. It is recommended to stay away from carbonated drinks while you are constipated.

2. Eat a fiber-rich diet. How many times have you heard that eating a healthy diet can help MS? Well, maintaining a healthy, fiber-rich diet can help keep you regular. Fruits and vegetables containing fiber include apples, raspberries, broccoli, beans, and potatoes. Whole grains are also an excellent source of fiber. Avoid foods that can cause constipation such as dairy and red meat. Your doctor may also recommend that you take a fiber supplement. 

3. Physical activity helps move things along. According to experts, inactivity is one of the key risk factors for constipation. Physical exercise helps keep you regular, but if you have MS and have difficulty exercising, walking regularly can help keep you regular as well. If you have problems walking, there may be other physical activities that you can participate in. Consult your doctor or physical therapist to recommend physical activities that are safe for where you are at in your MS journey.

4. Over-the-counter remedies. Stool softeners and laxatives can provide temporary relief but are not a long-term solution. If you are going to purchase a stool softener or laxative, my advice would be to do some from a pharmacy. If you have never used these products before, you can consult your local pharmacist to help select the right option for you.

5. Set a schedule. Staying regular means staying on schedule. Pick a time, approximately a half an hour after a meal, and go into the bathroom and try. Even if you are not successful at first, stick with it and you will train or retrain your bowels.