8 things you need to know about haemorrhoids

Also known as piles, they affect more than half the population at some point. Here a GP reveals what you need to know about the painful condition.

One of the most common causes of bleeding from your bottom, haemorrhoids are swollen veins in the anus or lower rectum – and are very common.

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At least half of the population will suffer from them at some point in their lives, but they particularly affect those who suffer from constipation, with almost one in two (49%) developing haemorrhoids, along with those who are pregnant or who have just given birth.

Weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle can also trigger symptoms, as can regularly lifting heavy objects where people may find themselves straining or with diarrhoea, all key causes of haemorrhoids.

The condition is caused by swollen and enlarged blood vessels around the back passage, triggering discomfort, itching and irritation, particularly after a bowel movement. Other symptoms include bleeding or mucus discharge after passing a stool, soreness, visible redness and swelling.

Haemorrhoids can be both internal and external with pain and irritation of the anus being the key indicator. They can leave sufferers feeling low in mood, uncomfortable, fed up, unclean, isolated and shocked or worried.

Here’s GP Dr Dawn Harper’s expert advice…

Is it just unhealthy people who suffer from piles?

“Anyone can suffer from haemorrhoids and there are many healthy people who suffer from haemorrhoids. However, if you wanted to reduce your risk of getting haemorrhoids, eating a healthy balanced diet can help.”

Are they caused by sitting on very cold or hot surfaces?

“The temperature of a surface on which you sit does not cause haemorrhoids nor does it have any impact on those who are currently suffering from the condition. It doesn’t matter what the temperature the seat is, it is the sitting for long periods that increases your risk.”

Does sitting for a long period of time cause piles?

“Sitting down for long periods does increase the odds. Make sure you take regular breaks – by law you are entitled to time away from your computer screen to avoid eyestrain. In these breaks, stand up and walk around. At lunchtime, take a walk, even if it's just round the block. In the evening, take advantage of all that energy you've stored up during the day – go out and do something that gets you moving and increases your heart rate. The more active you are, the more active your bowels will be which is important as constipation is a major risk factor when it comes to haemorrhoids.”

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Does the risk factor increase with age?

“Haemorrhoids can affect the young too and are not just a factor of age, although the risk increases with age, as your body’s supporting tissues get weaker, making the condition more prevalent in older people. However, it can affect individuals of any age, triggered by factors such as excessive straining during bowel movements and from chronic diarrhoea or constipation. It can also affect those in the latter stages of pregnancy or those who have just been through labour.”

Do spicy and exotic foods cause them?

“There is no evidence to suggest haemorrhoids can be caused by hot, spicy or exotic foods. However, these foods may cause stomach upset which can create increased discomfort for those with haemorrhoids when passing stools and in some cases can contribute to diarrhoea which can be painful during a flare-up.”

Can constipation cause haemorrhoids?

“Since straining on the toilet is one of the most common reasons why haemorrhoids develop, avoiding constipation and having to strain is vital to improve symptoms. Eating a healthy diet that contains plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and other fibre, drinking plenty of water, keeping active and keeping stress levels under control all help the bowel to function properly.”

Should you exercise if you have haemorrhoids?

“Most exercise is good at preventing haemorrhoids with one possible exception. Weight lifting with poor technique may increase the pressure in the rectal veins increasing the risk of haemorrhoids. If you do have haemorrhoids, regular exercise can help heal them and if you are susceptible to haemorrhoids, light regular exercise such as yoga, swimming or walking can help keep the colon more regular without placing a strain or increased abdominal pressure, which can lead to haemorrhoids.”

How to treat piles

Whilst common and perfectly normal, for sufferers who feel embarrassed or reluctant to seek medical advice, there are fast-acting treatments available to aid in relieving the pain and discomfort associated with the condition.

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Dr Dawn Harper suggests: “There are treatments that are able to reduce swelling and discomfort to relieve the pain. Whilst these treatments should work, if you are still suffering speak to your GP who will advise on what to try next and if necessary can refer you on to a specialist. You can also help manage the condition through diet – if constipation is the cause of your haemorrhoids, you could increase the amount of fibre in your diet and endeavour to keep stools soft and regular.”

Treatments such as Germoloids Suppositories provide triple-action pain relief with a local anaesthetic to numb the pain and discomfort, and zinc oxide to reduce swelling, soothe itching and shrink the haemorrhoids.

Eating plenty of fibre, avoiding processed or refined foods, drinking plenty of water and fruit juices, avoiding too much alcohol, tea and coffee are all dietary changes that can help. Exercising regularly, taking an active break from sitting every 30 minutes, reducing your stress levels, and going to the toilet regularly can all help treat and avoid haemorrhoids striking again.