Preparing for your visit
Keep in mind that your doctor sees patients like you on a regular basis and has probably heard about constipation problems hundreds of times. There’s no need to be ashamed. Preparing for your visit can help ease your nerves and make the visit more productive. Here are some tips on how to prepare:
Keep a journal
Constipation can be tricky to diagnose. What’s considered a “normal” number of bowel movements for one person might not be considered normal for another. For some, being “regular” means having a bowel movement twice a day. For others, it means having a bowel movement three or four times a week. Only you know your symptoms, so it’s important to be as accurate and detailed as possible when you bring up the topic with your doctor.
Keeping a journal with information about your bowel movements and dietary changes can be very helpful for your diagnosis. In your journal, write down the following information each day:
- if you have bowel movement
- if you are straining during the bowel movement
- if your stool is lumpy or very hard (You can use the Bristol Stool Chart to help you describe your stool.)
- if you have a sensation of incomplete evacuation after your bowel movement
- if you have a sensation of obstruction or blockage
- if you ever have to use manual maneuvers (like using your fingers) to help pass the stool
- if you have any other symptoms, like abdominal pain, gas, bloating, vomiting, or blood in your stool or on the toilet paper
- your weight
- if you took any medications
- foods you ate
- exercise or physical activity
- how much water and other liquids you drank
Write down your questions
Coming prepared with a list of questions to ask your doctor is another way to ensure you get the most out of your visit. Sometimes doctor appointments can feel a bit rushed. If you’re nervous, you might completely forget what you wanted to ask.
Spend a few moments thinking about what you want to ask your doctor and write down the questions. If you’re stuck, here are some ideas:
- What else could be causing my symptoms?
- Are more diagnostic tests needed?
- Is there anything I need to prepare for a diagnostic test, including dietary restrictions?
- What treatments are available to manage my symptoms?
- How long should I take a certain medication?
- What are the side effects of such medications?
- If the initial treatment doesn’t work, what are the next steps?
- Could I have irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) or chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC)? Something else?
- Should I stop taking any of my current medications, supplements, or vitamins?
- When can constipation be an emergency? Are there any specific symptoms to watch out for?
- What foods should I avoid? What foods should I add to my diet?
- Are there any other changes I should make to my lifestyle?
- When can I expect to get my test results?
- When should I schedule a follow-up visit?
During your visit
Now that you’ve made the appointment and prepared your questions, the next step is to know what to expect and what you need to do during the visit itself. This can help ease any nervousness you might have.
Fill out the paperwork
The office staff will have you fill out a questionnaire while you sit in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Be sure to make it clear that your symptoms include constipation. Also try to mark down how long your symptoms have persisted. Have you been experiencing constipation on and off for a few months? A year? Have you not had a bowel movement in five days? A week? This will give your doctor an immediate heads-up that this isn’t just an occasional bout of constipation and that you might need more than just an over-the-counter laxative to solve your problem.
Initiate the conversation
Your doctor is going to ask you what brings you in today. Now is not the time to freeze up or be shy. Try to be direct when starting the conversation. Say, “I’ve been experiencing constipation for the last few months and I am very concerned about it.”
Your doctor will first want to rule out any other causes of your symptoms, such as illnesses, medications, or other conditions. To do this, they will likely ask you a series of questions about your medical and family history, including any conditions or injuries you’ve had in the past and what medications you’re currently taking. They will also want to know about your lifestyle, such as how much physical activity you’re getting and what your diet is like.
You might find it gross to describe a bowel movement out loud, but your doctor won’t be able to help you if they don’t know what’s going on. Since constipation can mean different things to everyone, it’s important to be specific when describing your symptoms to a doctor. If you’ve been keeping a journal, now’s the time to detail your symptoms. Again, you can refer to the Bristol Stool Chart to help you describe your stool.
Expect that you may get a physical exam and diagnostic tests
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor might want to do a physical exam. This may involve:
- feeling your abdomen
- a rectal exam where they insert a gloved finger into your anus
- a pelvic exam (women)
Your doctor might also want to do a few diagnostic tests. These may include:
- a blood test
- a test of your stool (You will be given a kit to take a sample of stool during your next bowel movement.)
Don’t leave confused
Don’t leave your doctor’s office with a bunch of questions left unanswered. If you’re confused about something, keep asking questions until you’re no longer puzzled. You may not understand everything your doctor says, so it might be a good idea to write down a few notes that you can look up later online. You can also call the office after you’ve had a chance to recuperate at home and have a nurse explain to you what the doctor meant.
This is especially important if the doctor has prescribed you any medications. You need to know how to take the medications properly and follow any other instructions your doctor gave you to have the best chance at fixing your tummy issues.
Schedule a follow-up appointment
Before you leave, find out when you need to come back in for a follow-up appointment. Your doctor may have given you a treatment plan to follow until your next appointment. They will want to know whether or not the treatment plan is working at your next visit.
Continue to use your journal to track your symptoms. If your treatment doesn’t work, your doctor will likely have you try something else after your next follow-up visit.
Get a referral
If your doctor recommends that you see a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in the gastrointestinal system, ask for a referral. A referral may be required by your health insurance company prior to visiting a specialist.
The bottom line
You may find it embarrassing to talk to a doctor about your bowel movements, but it may be the only way to get some relief and to check if there’s another problem causing your tummy troubles. Before you visit your doctor, it’s helpful to spend some time writing down your symptoms, preparing questions, and learning what to expect during the visit. This will ensure you get the most out of your doctor’s visit and you start feeling better faster.