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A sports hernia is a painful athletic injury that affects the tendons or muscles of the lower groin. It’s often caused by forceful or repetitive movements in high impact sports, such as football, hockey, or rugby.

Despite its name, it’s not actually a hernia and most healthcare professionals prefer to use the term athletic pubalgia.

Sports hernias are more common in athletes, but they can happen to nonathletes as well.

If you’re concerned what you’re feeling could be athletic pubalgia, you may be curious to learn more about sports hernias and how to prevent them. This article tells you all you need to know about sports hernias, including symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

A sports hernia is an injury to the tendons or muscles of the groin. A 2017 study found that 50% of chronic groin pain was due to sports hernia.

Besides athletic pubalgia, sports hernia is also known as sportsman’s hernia, hockey groin, and Gilmore’s groin.

It’s a painful injury that’s caused by sudden and forceful movements during sports, especially quick twisting of the pelvis, kicking, or sprinting.

In particular, the lower oblique muscles and tendons attached to the obliques are the most commonly affected area. It can also affect the tendons that attach the muscles of your thigh to your pubic bone.

It’s important to note, however, that the term sports hernia can encompass a broad spectrum of injuries, from chronic groin pain to a rupture of the muscles in the groin.

Because of this, some researchers believe the term inguinal disruption may be a more accurate way to describe the broad range of conditions that could be labeled as sports hernias. Additionally, with these conditions, a true hernia is not actually present.

A hernia is a condition in which organs or soft tissue protrude through a wall (e.g., abdominal wall) or muscle tissue.

Since this doesn’t happen with a sports hernia injury, it’s technically incorrect to refer to athletic pubalgia as a hernia. Perhaps the name was misdefined because the condition is often mistaken as an inguinal hernia, which is a hernia of the lower groin area.

For simplicity’s sake:

  • Sports hernia: A sports hernia is an injury to tendons or muscles in the lower groin area, often due to sports activities.
  • Inguinal hernia: An inguinal hernia occurs when parts of the internal organs or soft tissues protrude through an opening in the lower abdominal wall, resulting in a painful bulge.

Since it’s not a true hernia, sports hernias are more accurately known as athletic pubalgia by the medical community. Some also may use a more general term known as groin pain syndrome.

However, since the term sports hernia is more popularly known, it will be used throughout this article.

Sports hernias are most often caused by athletic activities and sports that involve quick, forceful movements of the pelvis, such as kicking, turning, sprinting, or twisting.

These movements can cause tears or injury to muscles or tendons in the groin area.

Sports that have the highest incidences of sports hernias include:

  • hockey
  • football
  • rugby
  • soccer
  • tennis
  • wrestling
  • skiing or snowboarding

In addition to these sports, a person can experience a sports hernia for other reasons, such as weakness of the abdominal muscles, improper conditioning or training, unsafe movements, or activities involving twisting, kicking, or other forceful movements of the pelvis.

Sports hernias often present as chronic pain that begins at the onset of injury and can continue for many days or weeks.

Usually, it’s very painful at the time of injury and will transition to a more subtle, ongoing pain during periods of inactivity. The pain may worsen if you try to perform any physical activities involving kicking, twisting, sprinting, or even sitting up.

Due to the nature of the injury, it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the pain is and may present as a general radiating pain in the groin and thigh area.

In some cases, you may also notice pain when you cough or sneeze, since muscles of the abdomen contract simultaneously.

If you suspect you have a sports hernia, it’s important to visit a healthcare professional to receive a formal diagnosis.

During your initial visit, they will ask you about the nature of your injury and what caused it. Understanding the mechanism of injury is important in diagnosing a sports hernia since certain movements of the pelvis are more likely to cause sports hernias.

They’ll also perform a physical examination which usually includes palpating (gently pressing on) the area of the injury, testing your range of motion, and performing strength tests, such as doing a situp or flexing your torso against resistance.

If pain is present, this can be a sign of a sports hernia.

Since a sports hernia is difficult to diagnose, they may also request other diagnostic tests, such as an X-ray, ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan. These tests may confirm a sports hernia diagnosis or potentially identify a different injury.

Sports hernia treatment depends on the severity of injury and its location, your health, and what level of physical activity you’re looking to return to.

For many people, nonsurgical treatment is a first-line approach. This may include:

  • Rest: For minor injury, allow yourself to rest for a week or 2, or until pain has stopped.
  • Physical therapy: After around 2 weeks, you may wish to work with a physical therapist to help restore strength and range of motion in the injured area. They can also recommend at-home exercises and stretches.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications: During recovery, you may wish to take anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., ibuprofen or naproxen) to help reduce swelling and pain.

If your symptoms don’t improve after around 2 to 3 months or you have a complete tear, you may require surgery. The type of surgery will depend on the severity of the injury, the repair required, and other factors determined by your surgeon.

How common are sports hernias?

Sports hernias are one of the most common groin injuries. One small study related to chronic groin pain found that sports hernias accounted for around 50% of cases. Sports hernias mostly affect young male athletes, but can happen to anyone.

Will sports hernias go away on their own?

In most cases, sports hernias will require physical rehabilitation in addition to rest. Sometimes, surgery may also be needed.

If you have a minor groin strain or other muscle strain that’s not a sports hernia, then it may be able to heal on its own.

What does a sports hernia feel like?

A sports hernia is often described as intense pain at the onset of injury or during any physical activity involving the pelvis. During periods of inactivity, it’s usually a dull, chronic pain.

Can you prevent a sports hernia from happening again?

Sports hernias can be difficult to prevent since they often result from forceful and repetitive movements during sports.

However, abdominal and lower body strength training may help reduce the likelihood of injury. Warming up prior to physical activity and learning safe movement patterns during physical activity can also reduce your chances of a sports hernia.

A sports hernia is a painful injury of the lower abdomen and groin area. However, since it’s not a true hernia, it’s more appropriately called athletic pubalgia.

It’s most often caused by forceful and repetitive movements of the pelvis during sports activities, such as twisting, turning, kicking, or sprinting. Football, rugby, soccer, hockey, wrestling, and tennis athletes are most likely to experience a sports hernia.

If you suspect you have a sports hernia, discuss this with your healthcare professional. They’ll run various diagnostic tests to rule out any other cause of injury to ensure you receive the best treatment plan.