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Hemorrhoids are a common medical condition that can affect the anus and rectum. A hemorrhoid occurs when a blood vessel in this area becomes enlarged and bulging. They can occur just outside the anus (external) or inside the anus (internal).
Almost half of Americans develop a hemorrhoid at some point in their life, usually after the age of 30. In their early stages, they can be small and cause very few symptoms. But over time, hemorrhoids can cause blood in the stools, itching and pain. An internal hemorrhoid can prolapse, which means it protrudes out through the anus. And external hemorrhoids can sometimes develop a blood clot, which often makes them harden and become more painful.
Hemorrhoids become more likely as you age and the tissues of the anus and rectum weaken. The added pressure in the abdomen due to a pregnancy can also cause hemorrhoids. Other causes of hemorrhoids can be related to problems with bowel movements, such as a lack of fiber, diarrhea, straining or sitting on the toilet for too long.
For mild hemorrhoids, making changes to your diet and lifestyle such as eating more fiber, drinking more water or exercising regularly can help make stools easier to pass and relieve the symptoms related to hemorrhoids. Topical pads and creams can also help with symptom relief, though these should only be used for a short period of time to prevent any skin damage.
For particularly severe or painful hemorrhoids, your doctor has several treatments that can help. The first option is usually to try to shrink the hemorrhoid by constricting it with a rubber band (rubber band ligation), injecting it with a chemical (sclerotherapy) or applying heat (infrared coagulation). Hemorrhoids can also be surgically removed if the other treatments don’t work.
SOURCES: American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons; National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.