This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center
Hemorrhoids can be an often-painful source of itching, bleeding and discomfort. Finding blood on toilet paper leads many to assume they have this common problem, even when that isn’t really the case. There are other causes of rectal bleeding that are more serious than hemorrhoids and can cause the patient more health problems if not treated by a doctor.
Knowing what hemorrhoids are and how common they are is an important step in diagnosing the true problem.
“It’s estimated that in one’s lifetime, 75 percent of people are going to have some degree of a symptomatic hemorrhoid,” said Dr. Mitesh Patel, director of Pancreatobiliary Services at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
However, only about a third of those people are going to need medical attention, he explains. Not every case of this common issue needs to be treated by a doctor.
“Hemorrhoids are essentially veins that are returning the blood from the anal/rectal area back towards the heart, so these veins are naturally there in all of us. They can misbehave as we get older because of things we do. We normally have connective tissue that keeps these veins sort of tacked down … (in the case of hemorrhoid discomfort), the connective tissue is thinned out and these veins are now bulging up,” Dr. Patel said.
Strain or pressure in the anal area can cause this bulging. Bowel-movement strain, strain due to constipation and pressure from sitting on an unsupportive toilet for too long can put someone at risk for developing symptomatic hemorrhoids in the future.
This bulging can cause bleeding, soreness, itching and discomfort. Unfortunately, these symptoms can also be indicators of more serious issues that need medical attention.
“There should not be bleeding from the bowels, from the GI tract. So when we think about a person having rectal bleeding, we have to think about all the conditions that can cause bleeding. There are minor things like hemorrhoids, but there are some more aggressive things like vascular malformations within the colon, or little pouches that can form in the colon that can erode and cause bleeding. The worst-case scenario is advanced polyps or even cancer of the colon,” Dr. Patel said.
The following are listed by Dr. Patel as some of the more serious issues that could also cause bleeding in this area:
- Abnormal blood vessels in the colon
Abnormal blood vessels, for most people, are present from birth. But even though a person may have had abnormal vessels their whole life, if they start bleeding then a gastroenterologist should examine them.
Anal fissures are tears that occur along the lining of the anal canal. This occurs due to trauma while passing hard stools. A patient may feel anal pain and experience bleeding from the tear.
“Bloody stools and constipation are a few of the symptoms associated with colorectal cancer, so they’re not signs we can afford to take lightly,” Dr. Patel said.
Diverticulosis causes areas of the colon’s lining to weaken and form small pouches. These pouches can erode over time and lead to bleeding.
If a person is experiencing bleeding, soreness, itching and discomfort, the first step is to make an appointment with a family doctor. The doctor can then either treat the issue or recommend the patient see a specialist to further diagnose and treat the problem.
To try to prevent the formation of hemorrhoids, people can make some basic changes, such as adding fiber to the diet and making sure to drink plenty of fluids. Not only do fiber and fluid help the colon to function properly, but they also help people not experience constipation, which may cause strain on the hemorrhoids. Exercise can also help the colon move waste without causing more strain.
“If you try these measures for a few weeks with no improvement, or if your symptoms change suddenly, getting help from a gastroenterologist is the next step,” Dr. Patel said. “But whatever you do, don’t just ignore these symptoms. Getting help early not only can improve your quality of life, but it also can help us catch potentially serious problems quickly and safely.”
For more information or to listen to Dr. Patel’s podcast on hemorrhoids, click here.