Hernia repair is a surgical procedure to return an organ that protrudes through a weak area of muscle to its original position.
Hernias occur when a weakness in the wall of the abdomen allows an organ, usually the intestines, to bulge out of place. Hernias may result from a genetic predisposition toward this weakness. They can also be the result of weakening the muscle through improper exercise or poor lifting techniques. Both children and adults get hernias. Some are painful, while others are not.
There are three levels of hernias. An uncomplicated hernia is one where the intestines bulge into the peritoneum (the membrane lining the abdomen), but they can still be manipulated back into the body (although they don't stay in place without corrective surgery). This is termed a reducible hernia.
If the intestines bulge through the hernia defect and become trapped, this is called an incarcerated hernia. If the blood supply to an incarcerated hernia is shut off, the hernia is called a strangulated hernia. Strangulated hernias can result in gangrene.
Both incarcerated and strangulated hernias are medical emergencies and require emergency surgery to correct. For this reason, doctors generally recommend the repair of an uncomplicated hernia, even if it causes no discomfort to the patient.
Hernia repair can be performed under local, regional, or general anesthesia. The choice depends on the age and health of the patient and the type of hernia. Generally hernia repair is very safe surgery, but—as with any surgery—the risk of complications increases if the patient smokes, is obese, is very young or very old, uses alcohol heavily, or uses illicit drugs.
Hernia repairs are performed in a hospital or outpatient surgical facility by a general surgeon. Depending on the patient's age, health, and the type of hernia, patients may be able to go home the same day or may remain hospitalized for up to three to five days.
There are two types of hernia repair. A herniorrhaphy is used for simpler hernias. The intestines are returned to their proper place and the defect in the abdominal wall is mended. A hernioplasty is used for larger hernias. In this procedure, plastic or steel mesh is added to the abdominal wall to repair and reinforce the weak spot.
There are five kinds of common hernia repairs. They are named for the part of the body closest to the hernia, or bulge.
Femoral hernia repair
This procedure repairs a hernia that occurs in the groin where the thigh meets the abdomen. It is called a
femoral hernia repair because it is near the spot where the femoral artery and vein pass from the leg into the trunk of the body. Sometimes this type of hernia creates a noticeable bulge.
An incision is made in the groin area. The tissues are separated from the hernia sac, and the intestines are returned to the abdomen. The area is often reinforced with webbing before it is sewn shut. The skin is closed with sutures or metal clips that can be removed in about one week.
Inguinal hernia repair
Inguinal hernia repair closes a weakness in the abdominal wall that is near the inguinal canal, the spot where the testes descend from the body into the scrotum. This type of hernia occurs in about two percent of adult males.
An incision is made in the abdomen, then the hernia is located and repaired. The surgeon must be alert not to injure the spermatic cord, the testes, or the blood supply to the testes. If the hernia is small, it is simply repaired. If it is large, the area is reinforced with mesh to prevent a recurrence. External skin sutures can be removed in about a week. Patients should not resume sexual activity until being cleared by their doctor.
Umbilical hernia repair
This procedure repairs a hernia that occurs when the intestines bulge through the abdomen wall near the navel. Umbilical hernias are most common in infants.
An incision is made near the navel. The hernia is located and the intestines are returned to the abdomen. The peritoneum is closed, then the large abdominal muscle is pulled over the weak spot in such a way as to reinforce the area. External sutures or skin clips can be removed in about 10 days.
Incisional hernia repair
Incisional hernias occur most frequently at the site of a scar from earlier abdominal surgery. Once again, the abdomen is opened and the intestines returned to their proper place. The area is reinforced with mesh, and the abdominal wall is reconstructed to prevent another hernia from developing. External sutures can be removed in about a week.
A hiatal hernia repair is slightly different from the other hernias described here, because it corrects a weakness or opening in the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. This surgery is done to prevent the stomach from shifting up into the chest cavity and to prevent the stomach from spilling gastric juices into the esophagus, causing pain and scarring.
An incision is made in the abdomen or chest, and the hole or weakness in the diaphragm is located and repaired. The top of the stomach is wrapped around the bottom of the esophagus, and they are sutured together to hold the stomach in place. Sometimes the vagus nerve is cut in order to decrease the amount of acid the stomach
Patients should meet with the anesthesiologist before the operation to discuss any medications or conditions that might affect the administration of anesthesia. Patients may be asked to temporarily discontinue certain medications. The day of the operation, patients should not eat or drink anything. They may be given an enema to clear the bowels.
Patients should eat a clear liquid diet until the gastrointestinal tract begins functioning again. Normally this is a short period of time. After that, they are free to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet of their choice. They may bathe normally, using a gentle, unscented soap. An antibiotic ointment may be prescribed for the incision. After the operation, a hard ridge will form along the incision line. With time, this ridge softens and becomes less noticeable. Patients who remain in the hospital will have blood drawn for follow-up studies.
Patients should begin easy activities, such as walking, as soon as they are comfortable, but should avoid strenuous exercise for four to six weeks, and especially avoid heavy lifting. Learning and practicing proper lifting techniques is an important part of patient education after the operation. Patients may be given a laxative or stool softener so that they will not strain to have bowel movements. They should discuss with their doctor when to resume driving and sexual activity.
As with any surgery, there exists the possibility of excessive bleeding and infection after the surgery. In inguinal and femoral hernia repair, a slight risk of damage to the testicles or their blood supply exists for male patients. Accidental damage may be caused to the intestinal tract, but generally complications are few.
The outcome of surgery depends on the age and health of the patient and on the type of hernia. Although most hernias can be repaired without complications, hernias recur in 10–20% of people who have had hernia surgery.
"Hernia Repair." In The Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness and Surgery. 3rd ed. Ed. H. Winter Griffith, et al. New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1995.
"Hernia Repair." In The Patient's Guide to Medical Tests,ed. Barry L. Zaret, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
"Hernia Repair." ThriveOnline. <http://thriveonline.oxygen.com>.
Endoscopy—A procedure in which an instrument containing a camera is inserted into the gastrointestinal tract so that the doctor can visually inspect the gastrointestinal system.
Gangrene—Death and decay of body tissue because the blood supply is cut off. Tissues that have died in this way must be surgically removed.
Peritoneum—The transparent membrane lining the abdominal cavity that holds organs such as the intestines in place.