By Stacie Prada
When MSAA asked if I wanted to contribute something for their theme this month I knew I had a lot to say, but I was uneasy being frank about a topic that would be on the internet for anyone to judge. It was exactly that reason why I didn’t play it safe and just talk about embarrassing symptoms generally. Because I felt a bit of fear sharing my experiences with constipation, I decided it was the perfect one for me to discuss. Courage gathered and challenge accepted. So here goes…
There’s no glamour in being good at living with a chronic illness, but there is dignity in exhibiting confidence and acceptance of the reality of living with an incurable health condition. Aging gracefully is met with admiration, and I maintain that living confidently and openly with an illness is worth undertaking. People living with an illness deserve to live a life without shame or feelings of inadequacy for circumstances beyond their control.
Constipation is a common multiple sclerosis symptom. It’s embarrassing, and it’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss. Try to get over the embarrassment of bowel problems. If the doctor doesn’t have previous experience with an embarrassing issue, it won’t be the last time. You may be teaching the doctor something that will be useful for the next patient.
People that have helped me with different aspects of MS constipation over the years have been my Primary Care Physician, Neurologist, Physical Therapist, Urologist, Naturopath, yoga instructor, people in my MS Self Help Group, and close friends who have had their own experiences or been caretakers for their parents.
The MS Self Help group I’m in doesn’t ever respond, “T.M.I.,” or shut down a conversation when they’re uncomfortable. They may get quiet and let others speak, but I’ve never seen someone tell a person the topic isn’t appropriate. Meetings are a perfect resource and safe environment for sharing our specific problems and learning what other people do.
People are trying to be helpful when they diagnose your problem. They’re sharing what worked for them in the past, and they’re excited that they might be able to help you. With constipation though, it’s necessary to look at the consistency of your poop before deciding how to fix it. Most treatments assume you’re constipated because medications are hardening your stool or you’re not getting enough fiber or fluids in your diet. Sometimes those suggestions can help alleviate constipation. But with MS, that may not be the cause or remedy.
Sometimes the problem isn’t the consistency of stool; it’s that the poop should be able to move but won’t. Your fiber intake and hydration level can be perfect and your poop can be the perfect consistency, but the inner and outer anal sphincters may not be operating on command. The problem can be that the nerve messages flowing from the brain to the anus aren’t getting there to let a bowel movement happen naturally. It can also be that spasticity is refusing to let the muscles relax. If poop is the right consistency, then more fiber doesn’t help with this. With laxatives, you can get the poop to a diarrhea like consistency to alleviate unsatisfying bowel movements. While it’s a relief to empty the colon, it’s a roller coaster approach to dealing with constipation.
Pooping regularly and easily requires the perfect combination of good stool consistency and the anal sphincters functioning correctly. When the poop is good but MS lesions are blocking nerve messages or spasticity is wreaking havoc, there are a number of things that can help:
- Self-diagnosis: Learn how to detect the root issue causing constipation. Is it stool consistency, malfunctioning nerve messages or something else?
- Schedule: Allow time for coffee, tea, or medications to take effect before you need to be somewhere. It may require getting up earlier and taking more time in the morning.
- Movement: Stretch, twist, and move the mid-section to shake up the system to help induce a bowel movement. Exercising on a stationary bike, elliptical, or treadmill is good since you’re likely to be close to a bathroom when you feel you need to go.
- Self-massage: Look on the internet for “self massage for constipation.” There are a lot of videos and suggestions for how to massage the abdomen to induce a bowel movement.
- Breathing: Look on the internet for “breathing exercises for pooping.” Focusing on breathing and moving the belly can help focus attention away from the sphincter, relax the rest of the body, and trigger the involuntary muscles that can help a bowel movement.
- Gut health: Probiotics and prebiotics can help maintain regularity, and they come in a variety of forms from pills and liquid supplements to fermented foods and yogurt.
- Bowel training: Learn what each muscle in the pelvic region feels like when it’s tightened and when it’s relaxed in order to better control them. Kegels can increase the strength of the muscles and the ability to control them. Biofeedback with a trained professional can help with learning how to better control the external anal sphincter. The internal sphincter isn’t under voluntary control, but learning to relax the muscles in the area can help with bowel movements.
- Pooping position: Make sure to sit in a position that isn’t making it harder for the body to have a bowel movement. A foot stool like a Squatty Potty creates a squatting position while sitting on a toilet so that the colon is straight and not kinked.
- Supplements: Senna and magnesium are among the many, many laxatives available in pill, liquid, and tea form available to soften stool if needed.
- Enemas & Suppositories: Saline enemas and glycerin suppositories can be effective for emptying the bowels when constipation lasts too long and immediate action is needed.
- Botox injections and muscle relaxing medications are treatments that can help neutralize the effects of spasticity which is another common MS symptom that can lead to constipation.
The body is an engineering marvel, and when it works well it seems super simple. When things stop working as well, it takes a lot of self-discovery and research to figure out what’s going on. Embarrassing symptoms are frustrating, because they drastically increase the discomfort quotient and reduce the options for gathering treatment options.
Learning to overcome feelings of embarrassment will go a long way to diagnosing and finding treatments for symptoms. Be courageous. Be confident in your duty to advocate for your well-being. Be a good example and resource for others who may need to find their own courage to do this someday.
*Stacie Prada was diagnosed with RRMS in 2008 at the age of 38. Her blog, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a compilation of inspiration, exploration, and practical tips for living with multiple sclerosis while living a full, productive, and healthy life with a positive perspective. It includes musings on things that help her adapt, cope and rejoice in this adventure on earth. Please visit her at http://stacieprada.blogspot.com/