What Are Hemorrhoids?
Hemorrhoids are swollen blood vessels in the lower rectum. They are among the most common causes of anal pathology, and subsequently, are blamed for virtually any anorectal complaint by patients and medical professionals alike. Confusion often arises because the term “hemorrhoid” has been used to refer to both normal anatomic structures and pathologic structures. In the context of this article, “hemorrhoids” refers to the pathologic presentation of hemorrhoidal venous cushions.
Hemorrhoidal venous cushions are normal structures of the anorectum and are universally present unless a previous intervention has taken place. Because of their rich vascular supply, highly sensitive location, and tendency to engorge and prolapse, hemorrhoidal venous cushions are common causes of anal pathology. Symptoms can range from mildly bothersome, such as pruritus, to quite concerning, such as rectal bleeding.
Although hemorrhoids are a common condition diagnosed in clinical practice, many patients are too embarrassed to ever seek treatment. Consequently, the true prevalence of pathologic hemorrhoids is not known. In addition, although hemorrhoids are responsible for a large portion of anorectal complaints, it is important to rule out more serious conditions, such as other causes of gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, before reflexively attributing symptoms to hemorrhoids.
In a study of 198 physicians from different specialties, Grucela et al found the rate of correct identification for 7 common, benign anal pathologic conditions (including anal abscess, fissure, and fistula; prolapsed internal hemorrhoid; thrombosed external hemorrhoid; condyloma acuminata; and full-thickness rectal prolapse) was greatest for condylomata and rectal prolapse and was lowest for hemorrhoidal conditions. There was no correlation between diagnostic accuracy and years of physician experience. The investigators found the overall diagnostic accuracy among the physicians to be 53.5%, with the accuracy for surgeons being 70.4% and that for the rest of the doctors being less than 50%.
How Are Hemorrhoids Diagnosed?
A visual examination of your anus may be enough to diagnose hemorrhoids. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may do a different examination to check for any abnormalities within the anus. This check is known as a digital rectal exam. During this exam, your doctor inserts a gloved and lubricated finger into your rectum. If they feel anything abnormal, they may order an additional test called a sigmoidoscopy.
A sigmoidoscopy involves your doctor using a small camera to diagnose internal hemorrhoid. This small fiber-optic camera, called a sigmoidoscope, fits into a small tube and then inserts into your rectum. From this test, your doctor gets a clear view of the inside of your rectum so that they can examine hemorrhoid up close.