What is a Hernia?
Hernia is a general term used to describe a bulge or protrusion of an organ through the structure or muscle that usually contains it.
There are many different types of hernias. The most familiar type are those that occur in the abdomen, in which part of the intestines protrude through the abdominal wall. This may occur in different areas and, depending on the location, the hernia is given a different name.
An inguinal hernia appears as a bulge in the groin and may come and go depending on the position of the person or their level of physical activity. It can occur with or without pain. In men, the protrusion may descend into the scrotum. Inguinal hernias account for 80% of all hernias and are more common in men.
Femoral hernias are similar to inguinal hernias but appear as a bulge slightly lower. They are more common in women due to the strain of pregnancy.
A ventral hernia is also called an incisional hernia because it generally occurs as a bulge in the abdomen at the site of an old surgical scar. It is caused by thinning or stretching of the scar tissue, and occurs more frequently in people who are obese or pregnant.
An umbilical hernia appears as a soft bulge at the navel (umbilicus). It is caused by a weakening of the area or an imperfect closure of the area in infants. This type of hernia is more common in women due to pregnancy, and in Chinese and black infants. Some umbilical hernias in infants disappear without treatment within the first year.
A hiatal or diaphragmatic hernia is different from abdominal hernias in that it is not visible on the outside of the body. With a hiatal hernia, the stomach bulges upward through the muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen (the diaphragm). This type of hernia occurs more often in women than in men, and it is treated differently from other types of hernias.
Most hernias result from a weakness in the abdominal wall that either develops or that an infant is born with (congenital). Any increase in pressure in the abdomen, such as coughing, straining, heavy lifting, or pregnancy, can be a considered causative factor in developing an abdominal hernia. Obesity or recent excessive weight loss, a well as aging and previous surgery, are also risk factors.
Most abdominal hernias appear suddenly when the abdominal muscles are strained. The person may feel tenderness, a slight burning sensation, or a feeling of heaviness in the bulge. It may be possible for the person to push the hernia back into place with gentle pressure, or the hernia may disappear by itself when the person reclines. Being able to push the hernia back is called reducing it. On the other hand, some hernias cannot be pushed back into place, and are termed incarcerated or irreducible.
About 50% of all people with hiatal hernias do not have any symptoms. If symptoms exist they will include heartburn, usually 30 to 60 minutes following a meal. There may be some mid chest pain due to gastric acid from the stomach being pushed up into the oesophagus. The pain and heartburn are usually worse when lying down. Frequent belching and feelings of abdominal fullness may also be present.
Some hernias can be prevented by maintaining a reasonable weight, avoiding heavy lifting and constipation, and following a moderate exercise program to maintain good abdominal muscle tone.
There are alternative therapies for hiatal hernia. Visceral manipulation, done by a trained therapist, can help replace the stomach to its proper positioning. Other options in addition to H2 blockers are available to help regulate stomach acid production and balance. One of them, deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), helps balance stomach acid by improving the protective substances that line the stomach and intestines and by improving blood supply to these tissues. DGL does not interrupt the normal function of stomach acid.
Dietary modifications are also important. Small, frequent meals will keep pressure down on the oesophageal sphincter. Also, raising the head of the bed several inches with blocks or books can help with both the quality and quantity of sleep.