Abdominal hernias - causes, symptoms and treatment

BN1X34 Woman sitting in hospital waiting room holding stomach

An abdominal hernia can be caused by something as simple as sneezing, but left untreated, it will grow, and can lead to more serious problems. If you suspect you may have a hernia, here's what you need to know.

What is an abdominal hernia?
A hernia occurs when part of the abdomen, typically the gut, pushes through a weakness in the abdominal wall, a sheet of muscles and tendons running from the ribs to the groin. As a result, it often causes a bulge or swelling. There are several types, each named according to its location.

An inguinal hernia causes a bulge to appear in the groin or the scrotum, and is more common in men, as does a femoral hernia, though this type usually affects women. An incisional hernia may occur near an old surgical scar, where the muscles may be weakened by previous surgery, and an umbilical hernia appears around the navel. The latter is common in young children but often disappears as their muscles strengthen, though adults, often women during or after pregnancy, or those that are overweight, can also be affected.

A hiatus hernia, where part of the stomach pushes up into the chest through the diaphragm, is often without physical symptoms, though many sufferers experience severe heartburn as a result.

What causes it?
Hernias are typically caused by increased pressure on the abdomen, which could be as a result of coughing or sneezing, straining on the toilet, being overweight, pregnant or lifting heavy objects. As we age, our risk of developing an abdominal hernia increases, simply because the muscles of the abdominal wall weaken over time.

What are the symptoms?
With most hernias, the main symptom is the bulge or swelling itself. This will often disappear when you lie down or push it, and reappear when standing, coughing or sneezing (known as a reducible hernia). Straining of lifting may also cause a sharp pain, while some experience a burning sensation, discomfort, and a heaviness or aching in the stomach area.

However, if a hernia is allowed to grow and becomes impossible to push back in, known as an incarcerated hernia, there is a risk that the blood supply to the part of the gut that has pushed through may be cut off, leading to a strangulated hernia. Therefore if you have a hernia and develop symptoms such as pain, tenderness or redness in the affected area, feel weak or faint, with pale, clammy skin and an elevated heart rate, or feel sick and vomit, it is vital that you seek medical help straight away, as a strangulated hernia requires urgent surgery.

A GP will usually be able to identify a hernia with a simple examination of the area, although in some instances an ultrasound scan is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Often surgery is the only way to repair a hernia, although in some cases a doctor may decide that the risks outweigh the benefits. The procedure, either open or keyhole, is relatively simple, however, and involves pushing the bulge back into place and repairing the weak area of muscle.

The majority of hernia patients are able to go home the day after surgery, or even the same day, and can expect a full recovery within a few weeks.

So if you believe you might have developed a hernia, it is always worth asking your doctor to take a look and advise on the proper course of action.

Have you been treated for an abdominal hernia? Tell us about your experience below...
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