Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention
Hemorrhoids are varicose (enlarged and swollen) veins around the outside of the anus or in the lower rectum. The rectum is the last part of the bowel that leads to the anus, the opening at the end of the bowel where fecal matter leaves the body.
Everyone has hemorrhoidal tissue in this area that’s made up of blood vessels, connective tissue, and some muscle. These “cushions” don’t always become enlarged or distended, but as we age, this phenomenon becomes more common — causing what we call hemorrhoids, also known as piles.
Hemorrhoids can be caused in a number of ways, often by straining to make a bowel movement. Lifting heavy objects, along with other activities that may cause straining, can also lead to hemorrhoids. Experiencing increased pressure during pregnancy and being overweight are other contributing factors.
Hemorrhoids may be painful and particularly bothersome if they are recurrent, but they are not dangerous or life-threatening, and symptoms usually go away within a few days. There are plenty of effective ways to treat them, as well as options for the less common types of hemorrhoids that may be more problematic.
How Common Are Hemorrhoids?
Hemorrhoids are very common in both men and women, affecting about 1 in 20 Americans. (1) The most common time to get hemorrhoids is between ages 45 and 65. (2) Hemorrhoids are also common in pregnant women.
By age 50, about half of us have experienced hemorrhoid symptoms, such as itching, bleeding, and rectal pain. At any given time, about 10 million Americans — roughly 4 percent of adults — have hemorrhoids. (3) It’s estimated that 75 percent of Americans will have hemorrhoids at some point in their lives. (4)
There are several conditions and habits thought to cause hemorrhoids, including:
- Chronic constipation or diarrhea
- Straining too hard during bowel movements
- Sitting on the toilet for a long time
Straining, constipation, and prolonged sitting can all affect the blood flow in the area, causing blood to pool within the vessels, leading to hemorrhoids.
Factors that raise your risk of developing hemorrhoids include:
- Lack of fiber in the diet
- Obesity: Being overweight can put pressure on the hemorroidal tissue.
- Aging: As we get older, the connective tissue in the rectum and anus becomes weaker, potentially resulting in bulging hemorrhoids.
- Pregnancy: As the fetus grows and puts pressure on the abdomen, the veins in the rectum and anus may become enlarged. The problem typically goes away after birth.
Common Symptoms You May Experience
Seeing blood in your toilet bowl after a bowel movement is no doubt alarming, but it’s one of the main symptoms of hemorrhoids. Other symptoms include:
- Bright red blood on toilet paper or in your stool after a bowel movement
- Itching in the anal area
- Pain in the anal area, especially when sitting
- Pain during bowel movements
- One or more hard, painful lumps around the anus
If you experience any of these hemorrhoid symptoms, avoid excess straining, rubbing, or cleaning around the anus, which can make irritation and itching worse, and can even lead to bleeding. In addition, try to pat the area dry instead of wiping.