Johnston writes fascinating medical history of constipation and everything known about it up to 1885. "An indigestible diet in excess, especially vegetable food, a large part of which is insoluble, constipates by filling the bowel with matter which cannot be got rid of, and chronic catarrh results. In one case fifteen quarts of semi-solid, greenish-colored fecal matter were removed at the autopsy. Meats are all advisable in moderation."
January 1, 1885
Constipation - A System of Practical Medicine By American Authors, Vol. II - General Diseases (Continued) and Diseases of the Digestive System
BY W. W. JOHNSTON, M.D.
SYNONYMS.—Costiveness, Fecal retention, Fecal accumulation, Alvine obstruction, Obstipation. Ger. Koprostase, Stuhlverstopfung, Hartleibigkeit, Kothstanung. Fr. Constipation, Paresse du ventre, Échauffement. It. Constipazione. Older synonyms: Constipatio vel obstipatio alvi; Alvus tarda, dura, adstricta; Tarda alvi dejectio; Obstipatio alvarina; Stypsis; Coprostasis (Good).
NATURE AND DEFINITION.—The act of defecation is almost wholly due to the working of an involuntary mechanism which may be set in play by the will, and is in part dominated by it, but which is frequently independent and uncontrolled by volition. Deep inspiration, closure of the glottis, downward pressure of the diaphragm, and contraction of the abdominal muscles are accessory, but not essential, to the expulsion of feces from the rectum. In certain persons, and occasionally in all persons, especially in diseases where the fecal mass is in a semi-fluid or fluid form, the strongest effort of the will cannot resist the expulsive contractions of the rectal muscle. The sphincter is kept in a state of tonic contraction by a nervous centre situated in the lumbar portion of the spinal cord. The fecal mass, supported by the bladder and the rectum, does not at first touch the sphincter; the rectum is usually empty; but when the column has been well driven into the rectum peristaltic action is excited in the rectal walls and the sphincter is firmly pressed upon. The lumbar sphincter centre is now inhibited, and the ring of muscle opens, the accessory and voluntary muscles contract, and the expulsive act is completed. In the well-ordered and healthy individual the rectal walls and the sphincter do not receive the maximum of irritation from pressure of the advancing column but once in twenty-four hours. The habit of having one movement in each day is, it may be believed, in accordance with the natural and physiological demand, although both the number and the hours of evacuating are fixed to a great extent by education. The habit once established, the mechanism of expulsion recurs at the same hour and entirely without the direction of the will. If the desire be resisted, it will be most apt not to return until the same hour on the next day.
Defecation depends for its normal character upon the healthy functioning of the organism, but especially upon the normal processes of digestion. The character of the rectal contents as to composition and consistence, and the time of the arrival of the mass at the sphincter, are [p. 639]regulated by the taking of food at stated hours and by its normal digestion and absorption. Unaltered or partly-changed remains of the ingesta pass down the bowel, mingling with the secretion from the intestinal glands and with mucus and epithelium. As this mass passes into and through the colon, being propelled by regular peristaltic waves, it acquires odor from the development of a substance which is a final product of the putrefaction of albumen.1 Gradually the more fluid elements are absorbed, and in the descending colon a less fluid or semi-solid consistence of the feces is reached. A healthy digestion and assimilation, with active and regular contractile movements of the muscular walls of the small and large intestines, are essential to normal defecation.
14. Food which has but little waste to be got rid of—as milk or beef—leaves a small residuum to be propelled along the intestine, and therefore in one sense is constipating. Insufficient food acts in the same way. An indigestible diet in excess, especially vegetable food, a large part of which is insoluble, constipates by filling the bowel with matter which cannot be got rid of, and chronic catarrh results. The stones and seeds of fruits, as cherry- and plum-stones, raspberry- and currant-seeds, husks of corn and oats, produce acute or chronic constipation with serious symptoms. Intestinal worms (generally lumbricoids) when in large numbers cause obstruction of the bowel;8 and various foreign substances taken by caprice or to take the place of food have produced the same result: among these stick cinnamon,9 sawdust,10 and clay (among the clay-eaters of the South) have been mentioned. Magnesia, insoluble pills, and other medicines sometimes form concretions in the bowel. Enteroliths and accidental concretions form in the intestinal canal and are sources of obstruction. Any foreign body is a nucleus around which concentric layers of phosphate of lime are deposited, and thus a hard calculus is formed. Gall-stones may pass into the canal and there accumulate in such numbers as to interfere with the passage of the fecal matter.
The sigmoid flexure is usually the seat of the greatest dilatation; its expansion may be a cause or a consequence of constipation.12 It may reach a maximum of distension when it fills the entire abdominal cavity, compressing all the abdominal organs and pushing the stomach, liver, [p. 644]and intestines into the thorax. In a case of this kind the circumference of the dilated part was twenty-seven inches.13 The descending colon may be distended with the sigmoid flexure, or the whole colon may be dilated from the upper part of the rectum to the cæcum;14 the same thing happens rarely in the small intestine. In one case, in which there was an accumulation of feces in the sigmoid flexure, the large intestine presented itself as two immense cylinders lying side by side, extending from the epigastrium to the pelvis.15 Each was about five and a half inches in diameter, and together they filled the abdominal cavity. The circumference of the stretched colon varies from ten to thirty inches. Pouches forming little rounded tumors are seen on the outer surface of the colon; they are sometimes hernial protrusions of the mucous membrane through the muscular coat (Wilks and Moxon), or if large they are dilatations of the pouches of the colon.16
Collections of fecal matter may be found in any portion of the colon, but more frequently in the rectum, sigmoid flexure, descending or [p. 645]transverse colon, or cæcum. They lie within the intestinal tube, partly or wholly occluding it, or within lateral pouches, forming tumors which are sometimes quite large. In this last form there is no obstacle to the free passage of feces along the canal. Fecal accumulations occur as small round, oval, or irregularly-shaped lumps (scybalæ), and are often covered with layers of transparent semi-fluid mucus, puriform mucus, or mucus in filaments. The small concretions vary in density; they may be so hard as to resist the knife, and may be mistaken for gall-stones; larger masses, semi-solid or solid, are most commonly seen in the rectum and sigmoid flexure. Here the collection may reach an immense size. In one case fifteen quarts of semi-solid, greenish-colored fecal matter were removed at the autopsy.19 In two other cases the weight of the feces found in the bowel was thirteen and a half20 and twenty-six pounds21 respectively. The whole colon from the anus to the cæcum may be filled with such a mass, as in a case mentioned by Bristowe, where the colon "was completely full of semi-solid olive-green colored feces. The small intestines were also considerably distended, ... and were filled throughout with semi-fluid olive-green contents."22
The color of these collections is black, reddish, deep green, or yellow. In composition the scybalæ, concretions, and larger masses consist of fecal matter, with unaltered vegetable fibre; they may be composed partly of skins of grapes, cherry-stones, biliary calculi, hair, woody fibre, magnesia, or other foreign substances. Where fecal concretions long remain in the intestine they acquire a hardness like stone, and can with the microscope only be distinguished from mineral matter.23 Hemorrhoidal tumors, anal fissures, perirectal abscesses, fistulæ communicating externally or with the gut, are found in connection with constipation. Abscess of the iliac fossa has been observed in the same relationship.24
SYMPTOMS.—In persons who have a daily movement an occasional interruption of two to four days may take place without local or general signs of inconvenience. It is often asserted by patients that one day's omission induces suffering, and recourse is immediately had to laxatives. This may be justified sometimes, but in the majority of cases no actual suffering follows a very rare and short constipation.25 If, however, symptoms do occur after a constipation of one to three days, there is a sense of fulness and heat about the rectum which is greater after stool; when the bowels are moved, it is with effort (provided that no enema or purgative has been taken), and the bulk of the expelled mass is much greater [p. 646]than usual, being moulded and hardened from its longer retention in the rectum. The margins of the anus are tender, and the unsatisfied feeling after stool is due to distension of the hemorrhoidal veins and oedema of the tissues around them—a condition which ends in painful or bleeding hemorrhoids. There are signs of impaired digestion, loss of appetite, a coated tongue, oppression after eating and flatulence, and distension of the abdomen. Headache is apt to be present, with flushing of the face and general discomfort or irritability of temper. These phenomena may all disappear within two or three days by a spontaneous stool or by the use of a purgative.
The skin is often parched, sallow, and is sometimes covered with eruptions, as acne, psoriasis, eczema, erythema, or prurigo. Injuries, wounds, and cracks of the skin heal slowly.
TREATMENT.—The physician can render great service by giving to parents advice which will prevent constipation in children. He should insist upon the importance of habits of regularity in defecation. At the period of puberty in young girls this is of even greater moment, and no opportunity should be lost for pointing out the danger of neglect. As a prophylactic measure in adults counsel should be given suited to the occupation. To persons leading sedentary lives the necessity of exercise ought to be made clear. In the trades little can be done, but in the case of literary men and those who read or write for many hours prevention is easier than cure. Daily exercise, walking or riding, frequent bathing with active sponging and friction of the surface, especially over the abdomen, will be of much service. Avoiding constrained positions where pressure is brought to bear upon the abdomen, as in bending forward to write, is quite an important item. Among ignorant people advice of this kind is rarely attended to, but even here the doctrine of regularity should never cease to be preached. Active business-men, especially young men, need emphatic teaching. They cannot plead ignorance for the habitual and persistent neglect of the simplest rules of health of which they are in this country so often guilty. The symptoms of indigestion which are precursors of constipation should receive due attention, and a mode of life and dietary suited to a complete digestion of the food will favor the timely and proper expulsion of waste matter.
When it is desirable to empty the bowel in acute constipation a warm-water enema for adults and children is the best means. When a laxative is necessary in case of a failure of the enema, one mild in its operation [p. 652]should be chosen—a compound rhubarb pill, one to five grains of calomel, a teaspoonful of Rochelle salts, or half a bottle to a bottle of the solution of the citrate of magnesia or the tartro-citrate of sodium. For children calomel, in doses of one-third of a grain to one grain, is one of the most certain and least objectionable. One grain of powdered rhubarb can be added to this for a more active effect.
Under such circumstances as a blocking up of the bowel with a mass of partially digested or undigested food, fruit-stones, skins, or other foreign bodies, where the symptoms are violent pain, tympanites, and vomiting, the best method is to give large enemata of warm water through a long rectal tube passed as high up as possible, and to administer calomel in doses of one to three grains, repeated every two to three hours until the bowels are moved. Cold can be applied to the abdomen to diminish tympanites and prevent inflammation. Should the constipation not yield and the pain, vomiting, and tympanites augment, the case will then be considered one of intestinal obstruction, and be treated as such.
When called upon to treat chronic constipation, the physician should remember that it is not the symptom, but its causes, to which he should direct attention. Constipation is so often a symptom, a complication, of other diseased states that its management is a matter of secondary importance. Moreover, its causes are so peculiar to the individual and depend upon so many variable habits of life that each case asks for special study. The cure is only to be found by learning the particular cause—the habit of neglect, hurried eating, the use of aperients, uterine displacement, or any of the many causes enumerated.
The digestion and all that concerns it is of primary importance, and to it attention should be at once directed. The stomach and intestinal digestion should be examined separately, and the relative power to digest different articles of food determined. A diet, then, should be selected, not with a view to correcting the constipation, but as to its suitability to the digestive capacity of the patient. No system of diet can be fixed upon as suited to every case: the aim is to secure normal digestion and absorption and normal peristalsis. Many trials may have to be made before a proper dietary can be chosen. When there is indigestion of fats and malnutrition, with pale offensive stools containing much mucus, an exclusive nitrogenous and easily digestible diet—such as is advised in the article on INTESTINAL INDIGESTION—should be prescribed. In constipation connected with membranous enteritis a similar system of diet is proper. The drugs given should be those which aid intestinal digestion, and reference must be made again to this subject, already treated of. Many cases of constipation can only be cured by this treatment; the routine treatment by purgatives and a diet of vegetables and fruits would aggravate and not relieve. A course of exclusive milk or skim-milk diet, if persevered in for some weeks, will cure cases of constipation of this kind without the use of laxatives. Of course a purgative must sometimes be given if enemata fail, but the least irritating one should be selected.
The best diet for cases of atony of the colon and rectum is one which is easily digested and has a moderate amount of waste, as a full colon will stimulate muscular action. Various articles are suggested with a view to excite peristalsis by irritation of the mucous surface, but as such substances are in themselves insoluble and innutritious, it is unwise to resort to them. The following list includes the foods suitable to such cases: Fresh vegetables, as spinach, raw or stewed tomatoes, lettuce, kale, salsify, peas, asparagus, kohlrabi, and other summer vegetables; in winter canned vegetables, if well prepared, take their place. Among fruits, fresh fruit in general, especially grapes, peaches, and oranges; dried fruit, as figs, raisins in small quantity, stewed prunes, and baked or stewed apples, can be tried.
Too much vegetable matter is harmful, as the bowel is filled with an excess of waste, much of which is undigested food; the quantity must be regulated by the appearance of the stools and by the success of the regimen. If the blockade continues obstinately, the vegetable diet should be reduced. The microscope in many cases can alone decide the amount of undigested vegetable matter. Meats are all advisable in moderation. The least digestible, as ham and veal, are to be avoided. Graham-flour bread, brown bread, or bran bread are better than bread made of the best bolted flour. The first is more digestible, and bran bread46 is thought to increase peristalsis, but this is a doubtful effect. Oatmeal well boiled, fine hominy, corn meal, or cracked wheat with milk are pleasant and digestible. A cup of café au lait at breakfast or before breakfast is the best morning drink;47 it has a laxative influence. Tea is thought to have the opposite effect. Milk at breakfast answers well for those who take it with relish. An orange on rising in the morning is a pleasant remedy.