By Elizabeth Colsen, MD, General Surgeon
You lifted something heavy and now you are in pain. If it is painful to flex your abdominal muscles, it must be a muscle strain, right? Or is it a hernia? Symptoms of a hernia and muscle strain are similar, except a hernia presents as a bulge on the surface of the abdomen. With a hernia, you may develop other symptoms such as fever, chills, nausea, or vomiting. You may not be able to have a bowel movement, or you may have blood in your stool.
What is a hernia?
A hernia occurs when an organ or fatty tissue squeezes through a weak spot in a surrounding muscle or connective tissue. In other words, when an internal body part pushes into an area where it does not belong, it is a hernia – and they are more common than you think. Hernia repair is one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States. Common types of hernias include inguinal, incisional, hiatal, and umbilical.
Some people choose to leave their minor hernia untreated. Though they are not immediately life-threatening, they do not go away on their own and can cause other health problems down the road when left untreated—including permanent pain and bowel resection in some cases.
4 Types of Hernias
- Inguinal, or groin hernia—the most common type of hernia and accounts for nearly 70% of all hernias. These hernias occur when fat or the small intestine bulges through the lower abdominal muscles. If left untreated, the hernia can grow and become more painful. If a portion of your intestine becomes trapped in the abdominal wall, blood flow is restricted and this can cause the intestinal tissue to become infected or die. You do not want that to happen.
- Incisional hernia—this is the second most common hernia and occurs when tissue protrudes at the site of a prior surgical scar. An incisional hernia may get bigger over time, risking part of the intestine to become trapped in the protrusion. They need to be treated if they are causing symptoms.
- Hiatal hernia—occurs when the upper part of your stomach bulges through the diaphragm. It is more common in people over 50 years old, and is a cause of heartburn and can cause upper abdominal pain. A hiatal hernia can allow stomach contents to leak backward into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation. An x-ray of your upper digestive system will detect a hiatal hernia. Acidic foods will aggravate a hiatal hernia, so low-acid-producing foods like green beans, carrots, bananas, and grains are better for a person dealing with heartburn until the hernia can be fixed.
- Umbilical hernia— most common in children and can occur in babies under six months old. Especially when a baby is crying, you would notice a bulge through the abdominal wall near their bellybutton. A pediatric umbilical hernia is the only kind that goes away on its own, typically by the time the child is a year old and the abdominal muscles have gotten stronger. If it does not go away on its own, surgery may be needed to correct it. Adult umbilical hernias do not go away without surgery and are fixed when they start to hurt.
What causes a hernia?
Abdominal muscle weakness in adults is a common cause of hernias. This could be due to age, chronic coughing, damage from an injury or surgery, or failure of the abdominal wall to close properly. Some factors that put your body in extra strain are pregnancy, constipation, fluid in the abdomen, sudden weight gain, surgery in the area, and persistent coughing or sneezing.
You cannot always prevent a hernia, but you can reduce your risk by making healthy lifestyle choices. Some of these include maintaining a healthy body weight, avoid straining while going to the bathroom, quitting smoking to reduce chronic coughing, and see a doctor if you develop a persistent cough.
A hernia can develop quickly, or it could develop over a long period. In some cases, hernias have no symptoms. You may not know you have a hernia unless it shows up during a medical exam for an unrelated problem.
Short Recovery for Laparoscopic Hernia Surgery
Different tests or x-rays are done based on the type of hernia you have, and treatment options depend on the size of the hernia and severity of your symptoms. Hernias get bigger over time and may become more difficult to repair. In some cases, not taking care of a hernia when it is small could cause complicated health issues as it grows. It is important to get a doctor’s opinion as to whether or not you should monitor the hernia for changes or possible issues; or if another treatment is recommended, such as surgically repairing the abdominal wall.
Most hernias are repaired with laparoscopic surgery, which uses small incisions and makes for shorter recovery time for you. People usually return to work within a week and have a lifting restriction for two weeks.
You do not have to live with the discomfort or pain. As with all body ailments, it is best to see a physician and consider the treatment options that would work best for you.