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Hernia 101: Identifying and Treating a Hernia

About one in twenty people will develop a hernia within their lifetime. For those unfortunate souls, the bad news is that hernias can lead to serious complications that won’t go away if left untreated. The good news is that treatment is usually simple and effective. However, it’s important to be able to identify a hernia and get it taken care of quickly.

How Does a Hernia Happen?

A hernia occurs when there is a weakness in the tissues responsible for holding your organs in place. These tissues can tear and as a result of that failure, your organs push through the weakened spots in your abdominal wall. When the hernia grows large enough, it creates a visible bulge where the tissues are protruding. And because our tightly-packed organs maintain a steady source of pressure on that protrusion, a hernia will only get worse with time.

Hernias are either acquired as a result of strenuous activity or they are congenital.

  • Congenital hernias are a common birth defect that causes the abdominal wall to not be fully sealed during development. Young children may also develop a hernia if their tissues in the abdominal wall are weak at birth, but a tear isn’t immediately present at birth. These weaknesses may show up when a child engages in rough and tumble play that results in a rupture. This can easily be corrected with surgery and won’t pose a problem as a child ages.
  • Acquired hernias are the result of accumulated wear-and-tear due to previous surgeries, injuries, and / or heavy lifting. This type of hernia can also be caused by any type of persistent bodily stress, including chronic constipation, chronic cough, pregnancy, or obesity.

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Types of Hernias

The various types of hernia are distinguished by where tissues are escaping to and from. Fatty tissues will escape at any abdominal weakness, from the bottom of the groin to the top of the diaphragm.

About 75% of all hernias are inguinal, which is when tissues push into the groin from the lower abdominal wall. However, there are a number of other different types of hernia, including:

  • incisional
  • epigastric
  • Spigelian
  • diaphragmatic
  • hiatal
  • umbilical
  • femoral

What are the Symptoms of a Hernia?

A hernia can be hard to miss. Symptoms vary slightly depending on where the hernia appears, but usually include pain while lifting, a sense of feeling full without much consumption, and dull aching. There may also be swelling, pain, or a visible bulge at the site of the protrusion.

The size of this bulge will only increase in time as the hernia develops, becoming more serious and more painful in the process. Small or moderately-sized hernias don’t always have a visible bulge, but pain and swelling are a dead give-away for their location.

Not unlike a cavity in your tooth, it’s important to remember that untreated hernias will only get worse. If your hernia can be easily pushed back in place, it’s probably not a grave health risk right now, but may become one with time. Larger hernias can be life-threatening because tissues can become trapped in the opening of the hernia, causing restricted blood flow and tissue death.

Treatment for Hernia

The only effective and lasting treatment for a hernia is surgical repair. In many cases, this can be done with minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery. Depending on the location and size of the hernia, open surgery near the bulge may be necessary. During surgery, the hernia is pushed back into place, and weakened tissues are reinforced. This incredibly common procedure occurs more than 600,000 times annually in the United States alone.

Although it’s normal to be scared about surgery, most hernia patients can enjoy an outpatient procedure that’s completed in under an hour. Repair is also about 99% effective at preventing recurrence. So with a little vigilance, you can catch a hernia before it has the chance to grow into a more serious health risk, and get back on your feet in as little as a couple days.