What are Hemorrhoids?

Facts About Hemorrhoids

model of rectum with hemorrhoids
Doctor holding anatomically correct model of rectum with internal and external hemorrhoids and other rectal conditions.. Getty/E+/ericsphotography

Have you ever wondered, what are hemorrhoids? Although there are many jokes involving hemorrhoids, having one isn't so funny. While most hemorrhoids don't cause any suffering, clotted (external) and bleeding (internal) hemorrhoids can make sitting for long periods of time quite uncomfortable and can also cause pain when moving your bowels — not the least bit humorous.

The final portions of your colon, rectum and anus are very vascular, and many veins drain blood from this region.

Pregnancy and straining while making a bowel movement both impair this drainage of blood, causing swelling of the veins; when one of these veins becomes swollen and inflamed, it is called a hemorrhoid. In the average, healthy adult, hemorrhoids are not life-threatening and will usually go away on their own.

These swollen veins can occur inside the rectum (internal hemorrhoids) or around the anus (external hemorrhoids). People with internal hemorrhoids may not suffer any symptoms, and usually only become aware of their presence during routine screening exams. And while most people with hemorrhoids don't even realize they have them, discomfort and other symptoms nearly always indicate an external hemorrhoid. Many symptoms can mimic those of more serious diseases, such as colorectal or anal cancer. So if you're experiencing any signs, you should visit a doctor.

Causes of Hemorrhoids

There are a few different reasons that the veins swell, most of which are preventable.

For instance, it is not a wives' tale -- sitting on the toilet for too long can cause hemorrhoids. Some other avoidable causes include:

  • Straining to pass a bowel movement
  • Chronic irregularity (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Low or no fiber in your diet

The two causes you cannot change include getting older and pregnancy.

Almost half of all adults will suffer hemorrhoids at least once in their life by the age of 50, and the majority of mothers either develop them near the end of the third trimester or during a vaginal delivery.

Symptoms of Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are very common and usually aren't a cause for concern, however, the symptoms that herald these swollen veins should not be ignored. Rectal bleeding is one of the most common symptoms that you have a hemorrhoid, but it can also be a sign of colorectal cancer. Whether the blood is in the bowl, on the stool, or just a smear on your toilet paper, rectal bleeding should not be ignored. Likewise, some people with external hemorrhoids can feel a lump or hardened area on their anus. A lump or bump should never be ignored as it could potentially be a sign of anal cancer. Some other, more benign signs of hemorrhoids include:

  • Itching or burning around the anus
  • Pain in the rectum or inability to find a comfortable sitting position
  • Discomfort with passing large or hard stools

    Getting Diagnosed With Hemorrhoids

    Your doctor will perform a rectal examination. While external hemorrhoids are typically easy to spot, internal hemorrhoids are usually only diagnosed when they bleed or are found by chance during a colonoscopy. If the cause of your symptoms is unclear, your doctor may order further tests including a barium enema x-ray, a sigmoidoscopy or a colonoscopy.

    Treatment For Hemorrhoids

    For the most part, hemorrhoids will resolve on their own. It may take a few days or a few weeks, depending on the cause. Try to eliminate the reason you developed the hemorrhoid in the first place. If you continue to have constipation or sit on the toilet for hours each day, your hemorrhoids may become chronic, which means that they stay around for awhile. Likewise, if your stools are irregular, try adding more natural fiber to your diet and drink plenty of water.

    If you are uncomfortable from the itching or inflammation, you can try a tub soak in warm water. You don't need to submerge your entire body -- just your bum for about 10 minutes. There are also over-the-counter creams and suppositories that can help with burning pain.

    Some hemorrhoids become very large, and many develop blood clots. These hemorrhoids, which are typically hard, painful and inflamed, hurt because of the blood clot and its irritation. External hemorrhoids without clots generally don't show many symptoms. In rare instances, you may need surgical removal of a hemorrhoid, which often involves a simple, outpatient procedure.

    Prevention of Hemorrhoids

    Unless your hemorrhoids are related to aging or pregnancy, there are things you can do to decrease your risk of suffering them again in the future. Eating a diet rich with fiber can make your bowel movements easier to pass, decreasing straining and time spent on the commode. Many foods are now fortified with fiber, including cereals, bread, and even orange juice. Natural fiber is found in plant foods: fruits and vegetables, preferably with the peel on (if it's edible), provide an excellent source of natural fiber — and fiber has the added benefit of regulating your stools, so that the constant irregularity should diminish as your diet improves.


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    National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (n.d.). Hemorrhoids. Accessed online October 20, 2012.

    National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (n.d.). Bleeding in the Digestive Tract. Accessed online October 19, 2013.

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