Frequently Asked Questions About Hernias
An estimated 5 million people in the United States have a hernia, which is when part of an organ or tissue pushes through a weak spot, usually in the abdominal muscles. Less than a million of those with hernias will go to a doctor about their hernia, either because they don’t know they have one or it doesn’t bother them.
Some hernias cause pain or digestive problems, however, and need repair. In some rare cases, complications can arise that are medical emergencies. Men get hernias more often than women, but anyone, even an infant, can have a hernia. Here are some of the most common questions—and answers—about hernias.
What causes hernias?
Some people are born with weak abdominal muscles, which can make them more prone to hernias. Obesity, smoking, and pregnancy also increase the chance of getting a hernia. A hernia often develops when you lift heavy objects, during intense physical activity, when you strain during a bowel movement, or even have a persistent cough.
Are there different types of hernias?
Yes. Hernias are named after where they occur in your body. Here are some of the most common kinds of hernias:
Inguinal: in the groin
Femoral: also in the groin but lower down towards the thigh
Incisional: near the site of a previous surgery
Umbilical: near the navel
Hiatal: near the diaphragm where the stomach connects to the esophagus
Inguinal hernias are more common in men and femoral hernias occur mostly in women. Femoral hernias are also the most likely to develop complications. Other types of hernias occur in both sexes, and some infants are born with umbilical hernias, which may close on their own by around age 4.
How do I know if I might have a hernia?
If you see a bulge or swelling in your groin, abdomen, or near your stomach, you might have a hernia. You should be able to push the bulge gently back into place when you lie down. Other signs and symptoms include pain that may feel like a dull ache at the site of the bulge, a feeling of pressure, and pain while lifting things. If you have difficulty swallowing, regurgitate, or have heartburn, you may have a hiatal hernia, which is near your diaphragm and not visible externally. Doctors can usually diagnose a hernia by examining you, or they may order an imaging test such as an ultrasound or MRI. If you are a man, doctors are checking for hernia when they ask you to turn your head and cough during routine exams.
Will I need treatment for my hernia?
If your hernia is not causing any symptoms, your doctor may recommend “watchful waiting,” though hernias do not go away by themselves except in some very young children. If you have pain or your hernia is getting larger, however, your doctor may suggest surgery to repair it. Hernia operations are usually done on an outpatient basis, where the surgeon makes an incision, puts the tissue back in place or removes it, and stitches the muscle wall back together. After your surgery, you will be asked to restrict strenuous activity and exercise for about six weeks. Make sure you follow all your doctor’s orders following a hernia repair.
Is surgical mesh for hernias safe?
Doctors sometimes place surgical mesh at the site of a hernia repair to strengthen it, lowering the chance of recurrence, which is common in hernias. However, in 2010, the FDA began to recall some types of mesh due to an increase in complications. Those types of mesh are no longer available, but make sure you understand the risks and benefits of surgical mesh for hernia repair, and talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have.
Should I wear a hernia truss?
Probably not. Trusses, which are devices designed to hold the bulge of an inguinal hernia in place, may or may not make you more comfortable for a while, but they don’t treat the hernia. Some experts feel they may make a hernia worse. Talk to your doctor before you decide to try a hernia truss, which should only be used as a temporary measure, if at all.
What are the potential complications of hernias?
If the contents of the hernia bulge become trapped in the abdominal muscle, you can develop what is called an incarcerated hernia, which needs quick medical attention. If it’s not treated, the hernia can become strangulated, which is a life-threatening emergency. If your hernia pain increases suddenly and the site feels tender, the bulge becomes dark or red, if you cannot have a bowel movement or pass gas, or if you start vomiting or running a fever when you know you have a hernia, call your doctor right away or call 911.