Hemorrhoids are among the most common afflictions of the gastrointestinal system. Among American adults, approximately half will have experienced symptoms of hemorrhoids by age 50.
Despite this surprising statistic, hemorrhoids are rarely discussed in the mainstream media or even in the medical literature. This may be because hemorrhoids are usually a benign condition that rarely has a serious or long-lasting effect on overall health.
However, it is equally true that many people are embarrassed to admit they have hemorrhoids and this often translates into a reluctance to discuss their symptoms or seek help from medical professionals.
This article can help you to better understand what hemorrhoids are, why you might be experiencing them, and the duration and nature of symptoms you can expect if you develop hemorrhoids.
What Hemorrhoids Are
Hemorrhoids are a condition affecting the veins that move deoxygenated blood away from the tissues of the anus and rectum. If excessive pressure is applied to these veins, they become swollen. This creates the condition we call hemorrhoids.
Hemorrhoids can cause bleeding of the rectum or anus. Beyond this, they can be quite uncomfortable if not downright painful.
Hemorrhoids that are inside the rectum are called internal hemorrhoids are unlikely to be painful, as there are few nerve endings in this area. In fact, unless they are actively bleeding, you may be unaware you have them at all.
Painful hemorrhoids are usually those on the anus, where more nerve endings can sense pain. These are referred to as external hemorrhoids. They will be most painful when you have a bowel movement.
Why Hemorrhoids Happen
Normally, the veins of the lower gastrointestinal tract are not dilated, as they are with hemorrhoids. However, when there is force or pressure applied to the outer walls of these veins, they will swell and expand, causing the vein to bulge outwards and cause hemorrhoids to occur.
There are many reasons that this happens, including all of the following:
- Pregnancy. The extra weight that pregnant women carry puts extra pressure on these veins, making hemorrhoids more likely to occur.
- Obesity. Much like pregnancy, carrying a great deal of extra weight on your body creates excessive pressure on the veins and mucosa of the lower gastrointestinal tract.
- Too much sitting or standing. If you stand or sit for large periods of time at work or home, this applies pressure to the sensitive tissues of the anus and bowel as well.
- Constipation or straining with bowel movements. If you have to apply lots of effort to have a bowel movement, this causes excessive pressure to the delicate veins of the anus and rectum, which causes hemorrhoids.
- Coughing or sneezing. The brief increase in intra-abdominal pressure associated with coughing or sneezing can cause vein walls to weaken, allowing hemorrhoids to develop.
- Heavy physical labor. Much like straining with bowel movements, straining to lift or push heavy objects can result in hemorrhoids as well.
- Genetics. There is some evidence to suggest that predisposition to developing hemorrhoids has a genetic component. If your parents commonly experienced hemorrhoids, you may be at increased risk of developing the same.
Beyond this list, age plays a role in hemorrhoid development as well. As the thickness of blood vessel walls decreases with age, older adults become more susceptible to the development of hemorrhoids.
Duration and Treatment of Normal Hemorrhoids
Usually, hemorrhoids will resolve on their own within one to two weeks without special intervention. It is less common for the same hemorrhoid to persist for three or more weeks without improvement.
If it appears your hemorrhoids are not going to go away on their own within this time frame, there are a number of treatments you can try at home. These include the following:
- Sitz baths. These are a type of soak for the anus and buttocks where these parts of the body are immersed in warm water for 10-30 minutes at a time. This can provide relief to the tissues and help the veins to heal.
- Over-the-counter topical products. There are many creams and lotions available that can provide pain relief to the affected area as well as aiding in healing.
- Eating more fiber and drinking enough fluids. Not only does eating more fiber and staying hydrated help you avoid constipation and have bowel movements more quickly and avoid straining, but it also helps avoid irritation to current hemorrhoids as well.
- Cold therapy. If the pain or discomfort from hemorrhoids is persistent, try sitting on an ice pack for 15 to 30 minutes. Avoid exposing the affected tissues directly to the ice, however.
If the use of these techniques does not resolve your hemorrhoids after two weeks, speak with your family physician or another healthcare practitioner. They may be able to suggest more invasive treatment options, such as ligation, or banding. Other possible options include stapling and surgical removal.
Discuss Treatment Options with Your Doctor
Though rarely a serious condition, unresolved hemorrhoids and the pain associated with them can have a severe impact on your overall health and well-being.
If you are concerned you might have hemorrhoids, or if the pain associated with hemorrhoids is affecting your daily life, contact your doctor for information about treatment options.