Beware hernias masquerading as stomach aches

So when the doctor says “drop your drawers, turn your head, and cough,” he or she obviously isn’t listening to your lungs – typically, it’s a simple way of diagnosing the most typical form of abdominal hernia.

Hernias are very common, and occur in different locations. A hernia occurs when an organ pushes through an opening in the muscle or tissue that holds it in place. For example, the intestines may break through a weakened area in the abdominal wall. Hernias are most likely to occur in the abdomen, but they also can appear in the upper thigh, belly button, and groin areas. Most hernias are not immediately life threatening, but they don’t go away on their own and can require surgery to prevent potentially dangerous complications.

Inguinal hernias, the most common abdominal hernia, make up about 70 percent of all hernias, and are more common in men than in women. This is because a man’s testicles descend through the Inguinal canal shortly after birth, and the canal is supposed to close almost completely behind them. Sometimes, the canal does not close properly and leaves a weakened area prone to hernias.

Hernias are caused by a combination of muscle weakness and strain. Common causes of muscle weakness include failure of the abdominal wall to close properly in the womb, which is a congenital defect; age; chronic coughing; or damage from injury or surgery. Sports-related hernias can be caused by repetitive twisting or turning, especially at high speeds.

The most obvious symptom of a hernia is a bulge or lump in the affected area. In the case of an Inguinal hernia, you may notice a lump on either side of your pubic bone where your groin and thigh meet. You’re more likely to feel your hernia through touch when you’re standing up.

Other common symptoms of an inguinal hernia include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the affected area (usually the lower abdomen), especially when bending over, coughing, or lifting
  • Weakness, pressure, or a feeling of heaviness in the abdomen
  • A burning, gurgling, or aching sensation at the site of the bulge

In some cases, hernias have no symptoms. You may not know you have a hernia unless it shows up during a routine physical or a medical exam for an unrelated problem.

Depending on its cause, a hernia can develop quickly or over a long period of time. You can’t always prevent the muscle weakness that allows a hernia to occur. However, you can reduce the amount of strain you place on your body. This may help you avoid a hernia or keep an existing hernia from getting worse. Prevention tips include:

  • Not smoking
  • Seeing your doctor when you’re sick to avoid developing a persistent cough
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Avoiding straining during bowel movements or urination
  • Lifting objects with your knees and not your back
  • Avoiding lifting weights that are too heavy for you

Other types of hernias

Incisional hernias can occur after you’ve had abdominal surgery. Your intestines may push through the incision scar or the surrounding, weakened tissue.

Hiatal hernias occur when part of your stomach protrudes up through the diaphragm into your chest. This type of hernia is most common in patients over 50 years old. If a child has the condition, it’s typically caused by a congenital (birth) defect. Hiatal hernias almost always cause gastro esophageal reflux, which is when the stomach contents leak backward into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation. Symptoms of a hiatal hernia include acid reflux, which is when stomach acid moves backward into the esophagus causing a burning sensation; chest pain; and difficulty swallowing.

Umbilical hernias can occur in children and babies under six months old. This happens when their intestines bulge through their abdominal wall near their bellybutton. You may notice a bulge in or near your child’s bellybutton, especially when they’re crying. An umbilical hernia is the only kind that often goes away on its own, typically by the time the child is one year old. If the hernia has not gone away by this point, surgery may be used to correct it.

Other factors that strain your body and may cause a hernia include being pregnant, which puts pressure on your abdomen, and persistent coughing or sneezing. Other factors include a personal or family history of hernias, being overweight or obese, a chronic cough, chronic constipation, or smoking, which can trigger a chronic cough.

If your hernia is growing larger or causing pain, your doctor may decide that it’s best to operate. Repairing a traditional hernia typically involves sewing or closing the hole in the abdominal wall during surgery. This is most commonly done by patching the hole with surgical mesh, and often can be done through laparoscopic surgery, using a tiny camera and miniaturized surgical tools. Not all hernia surgeries can be conducted this way, however.

If you detect what you believe may be a hernia from straining yourself, exertion or genetics, a quick visit to your physician can help determine the easiest course of action.


 

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