A hernia occurs when an organ pushes through an opening in the muscle or tissue that holds it in place. For example, the intestines may break through a weakened area in the abdominal wall.
Many hernias occur in the abdomen between your chest and hips, but they can also appear in the upper thigh and groin areas.
Most hernias aren’t immediately life-threatening, but they don’t go away on their own. Sometimes they can require surgery to prevent dangerous complications.
The most common symptom of a hernia is a bulge or lump in the affected area. For example, in the case of an inguinal hernia, you may notice a lump on either side of your pubic bone where your groin and thigh meet.
You may find that the lump disappears when you’re lying down. You’re more likely to feel your hernia through touch when you’re standing up, bending down, or coughing. Discomfort or pain in the area around the lump may also be present.
In many cases, hernias have no symptoms. You may not know you have a hernia unless it shows up during a routine physical or a medical exam for an unrelated problem.
It’s important to recognize the signs of a hernia and to see your doctor if you suspect that you have one. An untreated hernia won’t go away by itself. Your doctor can assess your hernia and determine how it can best be treated.
Early medical care and lifestyle changes can minimize symptoms. However, surgery is the only way to effectively treat a hernia. There are different types of surgeries available to repair hernias, and your surgeon can advise on which one is right for your condition.
The prognosis for hernia repair surgery is generally very good, but can depend on the nature of the hernia, your symptoms, and your overall health. In some cases, the hernia may recur following repair.
Some common causes of muscle weakness or strain that can lead to a hernia include:
- a congenital condition that occurs during development in the womb and is present from birth
- damage from an injury or surgery
- chronic coughing or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- strenuous exercise or lifting heavy weights
- pregnancy, especially having multiple pregnancies
- constipation, which causes you to strain when having a bowel movement
- being overweight or obese
- fluid in the abdomen, or ascites
There are also certain things that can increase your risk of developing a hernia. They include:
To diagnose your condition, your doctor will first perform a physical examination. During this examination, your doctor may feel for a bulge in your abdominal or groin area that gets larger when you stand, cough, or strain.
Your doctor will then take your medical history. They may ask you a variety of questions, including things like:
- When did you first notice the bulge?
- Have you experienced any other symptoms?
- Do you think that there was something in particular that may have caused it to occur?
- Tell me a little bit about your lifestyle. Does your occupation involve heavy lifting? Do you exercise rigorously? Do you have a history of smoking?
- Do you have a personal or family history of hernias?
- Have you had any surgeries in the area of your abdomen or groin?
Your doctor will also likely use imaging tests to aid in their diagnosis. These can include things like:
- abdominal ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the structures inside the body
- CT scan, which combines X-rays with computer technology to produce an image
- MRI scan, which uses a combination of strong magnets and radio waves to make an image
If a hiatal hernia is suspected, your doctor may use other tests that allow them to assess the internal location of your stomach:
- Gastrografin or barium X-ray, which is a series of X-ray pictures of your digestive tract. The pictures are recorded after you’ve finished drinking a liquid containing diatrizoate meglumine and diatrizoate sodium (Gastrografin) or a liquid barium solution. Both show up well on the X-ray images.
- Endoscopy, which involves threading a small camera attached to a tube down your throat and into your esophagus and stomach.
If your hernia is growing larger or causing pain, your surgeon may decide it’s best to operate. They may repair your hernia by sewing the hole in the abdominal wall closed during surgery. This is commonly done by patching the hole with surgical mesh.
Hernias can be repaired with either open or laparoscopic surgery. Laparoscopic surgery uses a tiny camera and miniaturized surgical equipment to repair the hernia using only a few small incisions. It’s also less damaging to the surrounding tissue.
During open surgery, the surgeon makes an incision close to the site of the hernia, and then pushes the bulging tissue back into the abdomen. They then sew the area shut, sometimes reinforcing it with surgical mesh. Finally, they close the incision.
Not all hernias are suitable for laparoscopic surgery. If your hernia requires an open surgical repair, your surgeon will work with you to determine which type of surgery is best for your condition.
After your surgery, you may experience pain around the surgical site. Your surgeon will prescribe medication to help ease this discomfort while you recover.
Be sure to carefully follow your surgeon’s instructions involving wound care. Contact them promptly if you notice any signs of infection such as fever, redness or drainage at the site, or pain that suddenly worsens.
Following your hernia repair, you may be unable to move around normally for several weeks. You’ll need to avoid any strenuous activity. Additionally, you should avoid lifting objects heavier than 10 pounds during this period. This is approximately the weight of a gallon of milk.
Open surgery often requires a longer recovery process than laparoscopic surgery. Your surgeon will let you know when you can return to your normal routine.
There are several different types of hernias. Below, we’ll explore some of the most common ones.
Inguinal hernias are the most common type of hernia. These occur when the intestines push through a weak spot or tear in the lower abdominal wall, often in the inguinal canal. This type is also more common in men.
The inguinal canal is found in your groin. In men, it’s the area where the spermatic cord passes from the abdomen to the scrotum. This cord holds up the testicles. In women, the inguinal canal contains a ligament that helps hold the uterus in place.
These hernias are more common in men because the testicles descend through the inguinal canal shortly after birth. The canal is supposed to close almost completely behind them. Sometimes the canal doesn’t close properly, leaving a weakened area. Explore more about inguinal hernias.
A hiatal hernia occurs when part of your stomach protrudes up through the diaphragm into your chest cavity. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that helps you breathe by contracting and drawing air into the lungs. It separates the organs in your abdomen from those in your chest.
This type of hernia is most common in people over 50 years old. If a child has the condition, it’s typically caused by a congenital birth defect.
Umbilical hernias can occur in children and babies. This happens when their intestines bulge through their abdominal wall near their belly button. You may notice a bulge in or near your child’s belly button, especially when they’re crying.
An umbilical hernia is the only kind that often goes away on its own as the abdominal wall muscles get stronger, typically by the time the child is 1 or 2 years old. If the hernia hasn’t gone away by 5 years of age, surgery can be used to correct it.
Adults can also have umbilical hernias. This can occur from repeated strain on the abdomen due to things like obesity, pregnancy, or fluid in the abdomen (ascites). Learn additional details about umbilical hernias.
A ventral hernia happens when tissue bulges through an opening in the muscles of your abdomen. You may notice that the size of a ventral hernia reduces when you’re lying down.
Although a ventral hernia can be present from birth, it’s more commonly acquired at some point during your lifetime. Common factors in ventral hernia formation include things like obesity, strenuous activity, and pregnancy.
Ventral hernias can also happen at the site of a surgical incision. This is called an incisional hernia and can happen due to surgical scarring or weakness of the abdominal muscles at the surgical site. Continue reading to discover more about ventral hernias.
The only way to effectively treat a hernia is through surgical repair. However, whether or not you need surgery depends on the size of your hernia and the severity of your symptoms.
Your doctor may want to simply monitor your hernia for possible complications. This is called watchful waiting.
In some cases, wearing a truss may help to ease the symptoms of a hernia. This is a supportive undergarment that helps to hold the hernia in place. You should always see your doctor to make sure that a truss fits properly before using it.
If you have a hiatal hernia, over-the-counter and prescription medications that reduce stomach acid can relieve your discomfort and improve symptoms. These include antacids, H-2 receptor blockers, and proton pump inhibitors.
While home remedies won’t cure your hernia, there are some things that you can do to help with your symptoms.
Increasing your fiber intake may help to relieve constipation that can cause straining during bowel movements, which can aggravate a hernia. Some examples of high-fiber foods include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Exercise may work to strengthen muscles around the hernia and promote weight loss, helping reduce some symptoms.
It’s important to remember that some types of exercise, such as weight lifting or exercises that strain the abdomen, may increase pressure at the area of the hernia. This may actually cause the hernia to bulge more. The same is true for exercises that are done improperly.
If you have a hernia, it’s always best to discuss exercising with your doctor or physical therapist. They can work closely with you to let you know what exercises are fine to do and how to perform them properly to prevent irritating your hernia.
Umbilical hernias occur near the belly button. They form when the muscles surrounding the hole left by the umbilical cord don’t close properly. This causes a portion of the intestine to bulge out.
If your child has an umbilical hernia, you may notice it more when they’re crying or coughing. Typically, umbilical hernias in children are painless. However, when symptoms such as pain, vomiting, or swelling at the hernia site occur, you should seek emergency medical attention.
See your child’s pediatrician if you notice that your child has an umbilical hernia. Umbilical hernias typically go away when a child is 1 or 2 years old. However, if it doesn’t disappear by the age of 5, surgery can be used to repair it. Learn more about umbilical hernia repair.
If you’re pregnant and think that you have a hernia, be sure to see your doctor. They can evaluate it and determine if it poses any health risks.
Often, hernia repair can wait until after delivery. However, if a small hernia that’s present before or during the pregnancy begins to get larger or cause discomfort, surgery may be advised to repair it. The preferred time to do this is during the second trimester.
Hernias that have been previously repaired may come back with later pregnancies. This is because pregnancy places a strain on abdominal muscle tissue that may have been weakened by surgery.
Hernias can also occur following a cesarean delivery, also known as a C-section. During a cesarean delivery, an incision is made into the abdomen and uterus. The baby is then delivered through these incisions. An incisional hernia can sometimes occur at the site of a cesarean delivery. Get details about hernias that occur after a cesarean delivery.
Sometimes an untreated hernia can lead to potentially serious complications. Your hernia may grow and cause more symptoms. It may also put too much pressure on nearby tissues, which can cause swelling and pain in the surrounding area.
If the trapped section of your intestines doesn’t get enough blood flow, strangulation occurs. This can cause the intestinal tissue to become infected or die. A strangulated hernia is life-threatening and requires immediate medical care.
Some symptoms that can signal that you need to seek out emergency medical attention for your hernia include:
- a bulge that turns color to red or purple
- pain that suddenly gets worse
- nausea or vomiting
- not being able to pass gas or have bowel movements
You can’t always prevent a hernia from developing. Sometimes an existing inherited condition or previous surgery allows a hernia to occur.
However, you can make some simple lifestyle adjustments to help you avoid getting a hernia. These steps aim to reduce the amount of strain you place on your body.
Here are a few general hernia prevention tips:
- Stop smoking.
- See your doctor when you’re sick to avoid developing a persistent cough.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Try not to strain while having a bowel movement or during urination.
- Eat enough high-fiber foods to prevent constipation.
- Perform exercises that help to strengthen the muscles of your abdomen.
- Avoid lifting weights that are too heavy for you. If you must lift something heavy, bend at your knees and not your waist or back.