A hernia is marked by a bulge in the groin or abdomen, which occurs when an organ protrudes through the muscle opening that keeps it in place. Hernias are a very common problem and can occur in men or women of all ages.
For instance, in the case of an incisional hernia, the intestines may protrude through the abdominal wall at the place where the abdominal surgery was performed in the past.
While hernias commonly occur in the abdomen, they can also erupt in the belly button, upper thigh, and groin areas. Hernias are often not lethal, but sometimes, they can cause pain and discomfort. Surgery is the only solution to remove hernias and prevent potential complications that may arise.
Some hernias occur at birth while some occur after surgery.
What are the different types of hernia?
1) Inguinal hernia
An inguinal hernia is one of the most common types of hernia. This type of hernia contributes to around 70 percent of the total cases of hernia as per the British Hernia Centre (BHC). An inguinal hernia is formed when the intestines push or tear through a weak location of the lower abdominal wall. This formation mostly occurs in the inguinal canal, which is located in the groin.
This type of hernia is more commonly seen in men compared to women. The reason is mainly because in men, the testicles pass down through the inguinal canal after their birth and the canal normally gets closed. But at times, the canal does not appropriately close, which causes a weak spot, making it more susceptible to hernia.
2) Hiatal hernia
A hiatal hernia is formed when a portion of the stomach projects out through the diaphragm of the chest. The diaphragm is a muscle that enables breathing by contracting and allowing air into the lungs. It acts as a separator for the organs in the stomach and those in the chest area.
This type of hernia is mostly seen in adults who are above 50 years old. Moreover, if a child suffers from a hiatal hernia, it is due to some birth defects. In most cases, a hiatal hernia leads to gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition in which the stomach contents seep out to the esophagus causing a burning sensation.
3) Umbilical hernia
Umbilical hernia is a condition that can be developed in small children and babies below 6 months. This type of hernia occurs when the intestine protrudes through the abdominal wall near the belly button. When a child is suffering from an umbilical hernia, there will be a bulge near the belly button of the child, particularly when he or she is crying.
It is the only type of hernia that may disappear on its own after some time, mostly by the time the child reaches 1 year old. However, in cases where the hernia does not go away by the time the child reaches 12 months, it must be treated with surgery.
4) Incisional hernia
An incisional hernia occurs when the intestine protrudes through the abdomen. It commonly occurs in obese or elderly people who had an abdominal surgery in the past and are inactive since then.
What are the signs and symptoms of a hernia?
A protruding bulge or a lump in the affected area is the most common symptom of a hernia. In the case of an inguinal hernia, the lump appears on either side of the pubic bone where the groin meets with the thigh. In the case of umbilical hernia among infants, the bulge can only be noticed when they cry.
The signs and symptoms of an inguinal hernia include:
- A bulge that becomes more visible when the person is upright
- Discomfort and pain at the affected area
- A burning, gurgling, or aching sensation at the lump
- Pain or discomfort in the groin
- A feeling of heaviness in the groin
- Pressure or weakness in the abdomen
Other signs and symptoms of a hiatal hernia are:
- Acid reflux that causes a burning sensation
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Chest pain
What causes hernia?
A hernia is caused by the combined effects of strain and weakness in the muscles and tissues. This strain or pressure pushes a tissue or an organ through an opening or a weak spot.
Muscle weakness can be caused by:
- Failure of the abdominal wall to completely close in the womb
- Chronic coughing
- Surgical procedure or damage from injury
Factors that can put pressure in your body include:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Fluid in the abdomen
- Heavy weightlifting
- Sudden weight gain
- Constant coughing or sneezing
What are the risk factors?
Some of the risk factors that are associated with the formation of hernias are:
Some medical conditions like cystic fibrosis can also be indirectly responsible for increasing the risk of hernia development. Since cystic fibrosis weakens the normal functioning of the lungs, it can lead to a chronic cough.
How is hernia diagnosed?
In cases of inguinal and incisional hernias, diagnosis is done by doing a thorough physical examination. The doctor will check for any bulges present in the abdomen or groin area that tend to enlarge when the patient stands, coughs, or strains.
In the case of a hiatal hernia, the doctor can come up with a diagnosis by asking the patient to undergo a barium X-ray or endoscopy. With these procedures, the doctor will be able to check the internal area of the abdomen.
- Barium X-ray: It is a series of X-ray images of the digestive tract. The X-ray images are taken after the patient has consumed a liquid solution that contains barium, which will be seen clearly in the X-ray images.
- Endoscopy: In this procedure, a small camera is attached to a tube and inserted down the throat of the patient. The tube will be inserted right into the esophagus and stomach areas and a clear picture will be taken with the help of the camera.
If a child has an umbilical hernia, the doctor will be able to diagnose it with the help of an ultrasound. In an ultrasound, high-frequency sound waves can help visualize internal images of the body.
What are the complications associated with hernia?
Hernias of any type should be appropriately treated on time. If it is left untreated, the hernia will get enlarged and become very painful. A certain area of the intestine can get blocked in the abdominal wall, which can affect one's bowel movement. It can also lead to other complications such as unbearable pain, nausea, and constipation. Moreover, if hernia is not treated on time, it can put a lot of pressure on the tissues located near the affected area leading to inflammation and pain in the entire area.
Also, in cases where the blocked part of the intestine does not get an adequate blood flow, there can be strangulation. In such a scenario, the intestinal tissues get infected and eventually die. A strangulated hernia is a fatal condition that needs immediate medical attention and treatment.
Treatments for Hernia
The different treatment options for hernia patients depend on the size of the hernia and the severity of the condition.
The following are the different treatment options for hernia:
1) Lifestyle Changes
A hiatal hernia can often be treated by simple lifestyle changes. If you are experiencing the signs and symptoms of hernia, avoid consuming heavy meals and spicy foods that can cause heartburn. Do not bend over or lie down after a meal. You should also keep your weight under control and give up smoking. If these changes do not seem to ease your discomfort, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help reduce stomach acid can also relieve the symptoms of a hiatal hernia. These medications include H2 blockers, antacids, and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).
If the hernia is getting big and the patient is suffering from severe pain, the doctor will suggest surgery for its removal. During surgery, the doctor will sew the hole in the abdominal wall, which is mostly done with a surgical mesh.
Hernias can be removed either with laparoscopic or open surgery. In a laparoscopic surgery, there is a tiny camera and a small surgical equipment that is used to repair the hernia with a few incisions. In this type of surgery, there will be less damage caused to the tissues in the nearby areas. Open surgery, on the other hand, is a lengthy and a more risky procedure. After an open surgery, most patients are not able to move properly for about six weeks. The recovery period after a laparoscopic surgery is shorter than the open surgery. However, the risk of recurrence, in this case, is higher. Furthermore, not all types of hernias can be treated with a laparoscopic surgery, including hernias where a part of the intestine has moved into the scrotum.
Tips on Living with Hernia
- Lifestyle changes such as switching to a healthy diet and regular exercising can help manage hernia.
- Practice breathing exercises and meditation.
- Drink at least two liters of water a day.
- Avoiding drinking alcohol and smoking.
- Manage your weight.
- Avoid heavy weightlifting.
- Correct your body posture.
Alternative Treatments for Hernia
Along with lifestyle changes and conventional treatment options, a combination of holistic treatment options such as acupuncture, yoga, and herbal remedies can also be effective at managing the condition. The alternative traditional treatments can prevent hernias from aggravating further, thereby giving you relief and comfort.
How can hernia be prevented?
One cannot always avoid muscle weakness that leads to the development of hernia. However, you can try reducing the strains on your body. This initiative can help minimize the occurrence of hernia and avoid worsening an existing hernia. Some of the preventive measures that a person can take are as follows:
- Quit smoking since it can cause constant coughing that can put a tremendous pressure on the abdominal muscles.
- Consult the doctor if you have a chronic cough.
- Maintain a healthy body weight by following a low-calorie and nutritious diet.
- Include a lot of fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in your diet plan.
- Avoid straining when urinating or passing stool.
- Lift items with the knees and not putting pressure on your back.
- Avoid lifting very heavy objects that can cause strain to the muscles.
Proper Diet for Hernia
To avoid the recurrence of hernia, it is important to have a high protein and low-fat diet. When one has a diet that is high in fat and low in proteins, it leads to the weakening of the abdominal wall, increasing your risk of hernia development. Hence, include protein foods in your diet such as cottage cheese, tuna, and chicken. Also, make sure that you consume a low-fat milk or other dairy products to reduce your intake of fat.
Fiber is also essential, so include a lot of fruits in your diet. You can eat fresh fruits such as apples and pears. Other sources of fiber that you can have are nuts, whole grains and, beans. Eating fiber-rich foods will enable smooth bowel movements, reduce constipation, and relieve the symptoms of hernia.
It is very important to identify the initial signs and symptoms of hernia. If hernia is ignored and left untreated, it will not disappear with time. Therefore, medication and lifestyle changes will help in reducing the symptoms of hernia and preventing any complications that may arise. Consult your doctor immediately if you suspect that you have a hernia, so you can start your treatment.