You don't have to be a woman to experience one of the painful side-effects of childbirth.
Hemorrhoids, a big pain in the butt for many pregnant women, are equal opportunity offenders. They take no prisoners. They spare no bottoms. Reportedly, 10 million people suffer from hemorrhoids.
Hemorrhoid tissues are actually a natural part of the body. Most of the time you don't notice them because they help during bowel movements. But if these tissues become swollen or inflamed, they can cause uncomfortable symptoms, Really uncomfortable symptoms.
"Hemorrhoids are basically varicose veins around the opening of the rectum or the anus," said Kathi Willms, a nurse with the Center for Digestive Disorders at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center. "They're just enlarged veins."
Constipation can cause the unpleasant swelling.
"It's almost guaranteed that if you have a problem with constipation that you're going to have a problem with hemorrhoids," she said.
People who sit a lot, like truck drivers, are also prone to hemorrhoids, she noted. And, of course, so are pregnant women. Other causes are straining during bowel movements, diarrhea, strenuous exercise or heavy lifting and aging.
"The extra pressure against those blood vessels down there will cause it to enlarge. That's basically what it is," Willms said.
And anything that causes pressure "down there" isn't going to go away. Once you develop that little pocket where the vein enlarges, it never really goes away, she said.
"So when people say they've had trouble with their hemorrhoids, it's because they've gotten more inflamed and enlarged again. That pocket is always going to be a little enlarged, but it doesn't necessarily present a problem," she said.
The solution: Keep your stools soft.
And contrary to what some may believe, exercise helps.
"Exercise doesn't do anything for the hemorrhoids," Willms said. "But exercise is good for your gut. So people are just going to have better elimination habits the more active they are."
There are two kinds of hemorrhoids: internal, those inside the anus, or external, under the skin around the anus.
"If they're external, people pretty much know that they've got them," Willms said. "If they're inside, they may not be aware of it until they see some bleeding."
As for treatment, the most radical involves surgery, but that is a last resort for someone who can't get them under control with medication. Surgery is very uncomfortable and it leaves you with a tender area that must still be used unless you've learned how to live without poop.
While 10-minute tub baths several times a day in warm water may relieve the symptoms, doctors also recommend application of a hemorrhoidal cream or suppository to the affected area for a limited time, she said.
"But the main thing to keep you from having the problem is to maintain regular bowel habits," she said. "So the first thing that doctors will say is, 'Bump up your fiber. Bump up your fluids, 60 to 80 ounces of water a day. A fiber supplement like Metamucil or Benefiber just help to bulk the stool so that it's easier to pass. Sometimes people use stool softeners, but often if you drink enough water and watch your diet, lots of high-fiber vegetables and fruits, all that stuff, it will really help to keep that in check."
Willms said one of the hospital's doctors says everyone should be on a fiber supplement because Americans just don't get enough. It's not a laxative, she stressed. It just gives your body more fiber. And when you take Metamucil or Benefiber, also take plenty of water or risk worsening any constipation you might already be suffering. "I mean you'd be up the creek if you took that and didn't drink a lot of water. It'd be concrete," she said. "So the key is ... it's not fun."
High-fiber foods offer many benefits. By making your stools softer, they help heal and prevent swollen hemorroids. They may also help reduce the risk of colon and rectal cancer. Best of all, they are low in calories. Here are some examples of fiber-rich foods:
-- Whole grains, such as wheat bran, corn bran and brown rice.
-- Vegetables, especially carrots, broccoli, cabbage and peas.
-- Fruits, such as apples, bananas, raisins, peaches and pears.
-- Nuts and legumes, especially peanuts, lentils and kidney beans.