A strangulated hernia is a life-threatening medical condition. Fatty tissue or a section of the small intestines pushes through a weakened area of the abdominal muscle. The surrounding muscle then clamps down around the tissue, cutting off the blood supply to the small intestine. This strangulation of the small intestine can lead to intestinal perforation, shock, or gangrene (death) of the protruding tissue, which can lead to death.
Read on to learn more about this serious condition.
What are the symptoms of a strangulated hernia?
Unlike other types of hernias, a strangulated hernia causes a number of severe symptoms. Many people have visible bulges in their abdomen or groin, which is a clear indication that a hernia is present. Other symptoms may include:
- acute pain that comes on suddenly and may get more severe
- bloody stools
- darkening or reddening of the skin over the hernia
- inability to pass gas
- inflammation or tenderness around the hernia
- increased heart rate
Strangulated hernia vs. incarcerated hernia
An incarcerated hernia occurs when herniated tissue becomes trapped and cannot easily be moved back into place. An incarcerated hernia can lead to a bowel obstruction or strangulation. In other words, a strangulated hernia cannot cause an incarcerated hernia. However, you can develop a strangulated hernia from an incarcerated one.
Like strangulated hernias, incarcerated hernias must be treated by medical professionals. Incarcerated hernias are not life-threatening, however.
What causes strangulated hernias?
Strangulated hernias may be present at birth, but they can occur at any stage in life. They can occur if muscle tissue in the abdomen weakens, leading to potential areas where folds of tissue can slip through the muscle tissue.
As with other types of hernias, risk factors for strangulated hernia include:
- strenuous activity
- history of abdominal surgery, including cesarean delivery, which can weaken the abdominal wall
- straining during bowel movements
- chronic coughing
When to see a doctor
A strangulated hernia is a medical emergency. It must be examined by a doctor immediately so that life-saving surgery can be promptly administered. Most diagnoses will occur in emergency rooms in hospitals and other health centers because of the potentially fatal nature of the condition. Doctors may order an ultrasound or X-rays to determine the hernia’s size and if a bowel obstruction is present.
It’s important to see your doctor if you suspect you have a hernia of any sort. Don’t wait until you experience pain to seek medical attention.
How are strangulated hernias treated?
Surgery is the only treatment for strangulated hernias. The operation must take place as soon as possible to prevent lasting damage to the affected tissue.
Surgery is a two-step process. The surgeon will begin by reducing the strangulated hernia. This is done by gently applying pressure to the hernia to help release the trapped tissue back into the abdominal cavity.
Then the doctor will remove damaged tissue if needed. They’ll repair the hernia with tissue or synthetic mesh to prevent recurrence or other complications. Depending on your treatment plan, you’ll need either local or general anesthesia during surgery.
Open surgery is the preferred treatment for strangulated hernias. Laparoscopic surgical procedures have been tested as well. Initial results have been successful, but researchers recommend further studies into the safety of laparoscopic surgery for strangulated hernias. That’s because of the risk of injury.
Following surgery, you’ll likely need to spend a few days in the hospital. In some cases, you may be able to receive treatment on an outpatient basis.
You should be able to return to your regular routine within a week or two. You may need to avoid physically strenuous activities, like heavy lifting, for longer. You can likely expect a complete recovery within several weeks, but you should follow your doctor’s recommendations, especially when it comes to physically demanding activities.
What complications may occur without treatment?
If left untreated, the strangulated fold of tissue or small intestine will be cut off from its blood supply. It can become gangrenous within hours. As the tissue dies off, it releases dangerous toxins into the bloodstream. That can lead to sepsis and eventual death.
With proper treatment, the outlook is good for people who have had a strangulated hernia. The most important thing is to receive treatment as soon as possible.
You may also be able to prevent a strangulated hernia by being proactive. Seek treatment if you suspect you have a hernia. That may reduce your risk for the hernia becoming strangulated. If you suspect that your hernia has become strangulated, go to your nearest emergency room or call your local emergency services immediately.
If you have had a strangulated hernia treated in an emergency room, follow up with your medical doctor or specialist to see if further treatment is needed to prevent recurrence.