Odds are good that you’ve had one — a burning, itching, irritating little hemorrhoid. And like millions of Americans, you probably dabbed it with a witch hazel pad or a little over-the-counter ointment and in a week or two the symptoms were resolved and you didn’t think much about it after that.
Hemorrhoids affect about one in every 20 Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health, and tend to occur with greater frequency as we age, with about half of all American adults age 50 or older experiencing hemorrhoids
You’re also more likely to experience hemorrhoids if you’re pregnant, often lift heavy objects (as for work) or struggle with bowel movements, either straining to go, spending a long time on the toilet or battling with chronic constipation or diarrhea.
Even then, often these painful, personal little irritations are often nothing more, and can be treated with over-the-counter remedies
However, every now and then the over-the-counter approach doesn’t work, and a more intensive solution is necessary.
What Are Hemorrhoids?
A hemorrhoid is basically a varicose vein near the anus. You have veins that run throughout your body, transporting blood back to the lungs and heart to be replenished with oxygen and sent back out to your body’s tissues, muscles, organs, etc. through arteries. While gravity aids your circulatory system in getting blood from the lungs and heart down to the lower parts of your body, the veins must work pretty hard to get that blood back up to the heart.
Most people complain of varicose veins in their legs, where they can appear blue on the skin, leave knots on the legs and make it painful to stand or walk. But varicose veins also frequently occur near the rectum as veins fail in their job of carrying blood back to the heart. When the vein fails, the blood it was transporting just sits there inside the vessel.
Since the blood can go no farther, it pools in the vein, causing the swelling and pain that’s familiar to so many people as hemorrhoids. This can occur externally, or outside the rectum, or internally, inside the rectum.
Again, this is often fleeting, and many instances of hemorrhoids can be resolved in a couple of weeks. But like other health issues, hemorrhoids, too, are subject to complications that can require medical intervention.
When Should You See a Doctor?
If your symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks — or if you experience obvious complications like those detailed below — it’s time to see a medical provider.
Hemorrhoids can usually be diagnosed based on your description of the symptoms and a physical exam. A digital rectal exam may be used to check for internal hemorrhoids, or a small scope may be used to look for or locate hemorrhoids within the rectum.
When hemorrhoids go bad, it can be extremely painful. The types of complications hemorrhoid sufferers may face include:
- Thrombosed hemorrhoids, which occur when an external hemorrhoid develops a blood clot within it
- Prolapse, when an internal hemorrhoid becomes so large it pushes through the rectum
- Skin tags, which remain on the anus after an external hemorrhoid has been resolved
- Bleeding, which can occur when hemorrhoids become irritated and can eventually lead to anemia
- Infection, which is especially a risk with prolapsed internal hemorrhoids or when an external hemorrhoid develops a sore
Often, these types of complications require a surgical intervention. The good news is, with contemporary surgical and anesthetic techniques, many of these treatments can be performed in the privacy of the surgeon’s office — though some matters may require a more intensive intervention in a hospital operating suite.
If you’re experiencing hemorrhoids or related complications, speak with your physician or a surgeon about the services available that can help you achieve lasting relief.