Understanding Hemorrhoids

Facts About Hemorrhoids

Diagram showing a variety of hemorrhoids.
Wikimedia Commons

Although there are many jokes involving hemorrhoids, having one isn't so funny. While most hemorrhoids don't cause any suffering, some 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 hemorrhoid. These swollen veins can occur inside  the rectum (internal hemorrhoids) or around the anus (external hemorrhoids). In the average, healthy adult, Hemorrhoids are not life-threatening and will usually go away on their own.

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)
  • Little 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 of 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 never 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

Diagnosing Hemorrhoids

If your doctor suspects a hemorrhoid is causing your symptoms, he or she will usually 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.

Hemorrhoid Treatment

For the most part, hemorrhoids usually 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 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. In rare instances, you may require surgical removal of a hemorrhoid, which often involves a simple, outpatient procedure.

Preventing 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 in fiber can make your bowel movements easier to pass, decreasing straining and time spent on the toilet. 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. Fiber has the added benefit of regulating your stools so that the constant irregularity should diminish as your diet improves.

Sources

MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Hemorrhoid Surgery.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (n.d.). Hemorrhoids.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (n.d.). Bleeding in the Digestive Tract.

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