Why Reading on the Toilet Can Be Bad for Your Butt

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Linger too long on the toilet, and it can lead to hemorrhoids, constipation and other uncomfortable health consequences.
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Given the prevalence of mobile phones in our lives, it's no shock that 3 out of 4 Americans look at their cell while on the toilet, according to a 2020 survey from electronics resale site BankMyCell. In fact, 96 percent of Gen Zers and 90 percent of millennials say they won't go to the bathroom without their phone.

But checking your phone on the throne can be bad for your butt. The reason is that while you're busy scrolling through TikTok, binge-watching your favorite show or catching up on your emails, you might linger on the loo for longer than you need to. (By the way, the same thing is true if you're reading a book or magazine.)

"Unlike sitting in a chair, which gives you support, your bottom hangs down into the middle of the toilet," says gastroenterologist and neurogastroenterologist Kyle Staller, MD, director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "This allows the rectal tissue to relax and fall."

4 Things That Can Happen When You Linger on the Toilet

Spending too much time perched on the toilet can lead to all kinds of snafus with your caboose. Here, GI docs get real about backdoor itching, pain, bleeding and leakage that chillaxing with your phone or a novel in the restroom might bring on — and what you can do about it.

1. You're More Likely to Get Hemorrhoids

You've probably seen advertisements touting treatments for hemorrhoids, which are commonly described as an itchy, bothersome sensation around your anus.

But what exactly are they? "We all have hemorrhoids, which are groups of veins anchored by tissue lining our anal canal," Dr. Staller says. "They help us maintain continence by closing off the anus and preventing leakage."

They're a natural part of the body, and chances are you never notice them — unless they're swollen.

"When you are seated on the toilet, you are exposing your rectal area to focused, direct pressure, especially if you are straining to have a bowel movement," says Ugo Iroku, MD, gastroenterologist with New York Gastroenterology Associates. "This pressure closes off your hemorrhoidal veins so the blood pools in them and causes them to bulge up, similar to the way the blood vessels in your arm bulge when a blood pressure cuff tightens around your bicep."

In addition, as you get older the tissues cushioning the veins might weaken. "They can become floppy, and are more likely to get in the way and protrude," Dr. Staller says.

This protrusion is what people are referring to when they use the term "hemorrhoids." Having them can be itchy, uncomfortable and painful; hemorrhoids can also leak or bleed.

Hemorrhoids affect between 20 and 50 percent of the population, resulting in 4 million doctor's office and emergency visits annually, according to a January 2019 article in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. And as our phones become increasingly ubiquitous, there are signs that hemorrhoids might be on the rise. A Google Trends analysis revealed that about 48,000 searches per week for "hemorrhoids" were performed in July 2010. That figure soared to 86,000 weekly searches in July 2020.

How to Ease Hemorrhoid Symptoms

The good news is that there are easy ways to alleviate hemorrhoid symptoms, beyond limiting the amount of time you spend on the toilet. Try these five tactics:

1. A Sitz Bath: The best thing you can do, according to experts, is draw yourself a soothing sitz bath. Sit in a few inches of warm bath water twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. “Sitz baths decrease inflammation and allow the area to relax,” Dr. Staller says. “This leads to less pressure on the hemorrhoidal veins.”

Plus, it helps keep your bottom clean, which reduces irritation and itching. On that note, using wet wipes after a bowel movement can be more effective and less abrasive than plain old toilet paper.

2. Over-the-Counter Remedies: In addition, over-the-counter treatments like Preparation H, Tucks or cotton balls soaked in witch hazel can reduce swelling and offer relief.

3. Work Out:Regular exercise might strengthen the anal wall tissue holding the hemorrhoidal veins in place,” Dr. Staller says. “It also improves blood flow throughout the body, including the pelvic floor, leading to better muscle and nerve health, which is part of defecation evacuation.”

Just avoid moves that strain the pelvic floor, like lifting heavy weights, as they can increase your risk of hemorrhoids.

4. Change Your Posture: Put a stool in front of the toilet so you can elevate your knees above your hips, in a squatting position. “This straightens out the angle in the colon, which makes it easier to evacuate with less strain,” Dr. Staller says. Instead of excrement having to navigate around a bend, it’s a straight shot down.

5. Make Fiber Your Friend:“Fiber can reduce straining and prevent and improve stool leakage because it serves as a bulking agent, creating a fluffier, plumper stool that is easier for the rectum to push out,” Dr. Staller says. “It also nourishes the lining of the colon and rectum, which helps everything work better.”

Aim for 25-30 grams a day, which can you can get by chowing down on fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains or an over-the-counter fiber supplement. “Metamucil, which contains psyllium, or Citrucel, with methylcellulose, can be helpful,” Dr. Staller says.

2. You Can Get Blocked Up

It sounds counterintuitive, but taking your sweet time on the commode could lead to constipation. The reason? Habitually whipping out your phone or a book whenever you're on the pot sends your body mixed messages.

"You are training your body that sitting on the toilet no longer signifies that it's time to move your bowels," Dr. Iroku says. "Instead, you're forming an association between toilet use and your phone — it's similar to how habitually watching TV in bed can make it harder to sleep."

As a result, pooping might not happen automatically when you perch on the potty, the way it should.

In addition, if your bottom already hurts thanks to hemorrhoids, you might avoid going to the bathroom because it's painful. "The longer your stool sits inside your colon, the drier and harder it becomes," Dr. Iroku says. "If you delay a bowel movement too long, you might find that you strain more because it's hard."

Bearing down, of course, can cause hemorrhoids to flare up, setting off a vicious cycle. And when you do poop, it's more likely to be rock-hard, which can lead to a tear in the lining of the anal canal. (More on that in a minute.)

Constipation can lead to a host of other issues, too. "You might experience nausea, heartburn, bloating or reflux," Dr. Iroku says. "If your stool becomes impacted and you can't move your bowels by yourself, then a doctor will need to get it out via an enema."

Before it gets to that point, you can usually relieve constipation at home, by drinking plenty of fluids to help keep your stool soft, increasing your fiber intake and exercising daily (this moves food through your system more rapidly so there is less water loss). It's also important to book it to the bathroom as soon as you hear the call of nature.

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3. You Might Tear Your Butt

Although hemorrhoids can hurt and bleed on occasion, fissures are the source of most anal pain and bleeding. "If you are passing a hard stool, it can tear the lining of the anal canal," Dr. Staller says. "This cut is called a fissure." (A stool with something sharp sticking out of it, like a nut, can also result in a fissure.)

Underneath the lining is the sphincter, a ring-shaped muscle that expands to allow the anal canal to empty during a bowel movement and contracts afterward to create a seal. "A fissure causes the sphincter to involuntarily spasm closed," Dr. Staller says. "This leads to difficulty going to the bathroom, because you are trying to push against a shut door." Then constipation gets worse and hemorrhoids rear their ugly heads.

Just like with hemorrhoids, a warm sitz bath can bring relief. "Your doctor can also prescribe ointments that help relax the muscle," Dr. Staller says.

4. Your Rectum Could Fall Out of Your Anus

It sounds pretty horrific, but for some people, dawdling on the pot can cause rectal prolapse, where a portion of the rectum drops out of the anus.

"Sometimes it comes out when you're straining and then goes back in on its own, sometimes you can manually push it back in and sometimes it comes out and stays out," Dr. Staller says. "This condition is most often seen in older adult women who have had multiple vaginal deliveries, and on top of that are experiencing an issue with their bowels that causes them to sit or strain on the toilet a lot, like frequent constipation or diarrhea."

Staying hydrated, eating a high-fiber diet and doing kegel exercise can improve rectal prolapse. Depending on the severity of the prolapse, you might need surgery, according to the University of Michigan Medical School.

How Long Is Too Long to Sit on the Toilet?

There is no hard and fast rule, but Dr. Iroku says moving your bowels shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes and encourages people to avoid dilly-dallying.

"If you have the urge to defecate, heed the call in a reasonable amount of time," Dr. Staller says. "Sit on the toilet, do your business in an efficient manner and then get off. This is an innate, natural process and your body should be able to do it."

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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