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Doctor Decoded: What Is a Hernia, Actually?

The most common type is a hernia in the abdomen.

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Your doctor says that the cause of your pain is a hernia. You’ve heard the word before, but what is it?

To put it simply, a hernia is when part of an organ or other tissue bulges through a weakened muscle wall. For example, think of a plastic trash bag. The bag may become weak in some parts (if it gets stretched out or torn). As the bag fills up, bits of trash may break through that weak spot and bulge out. This is similar to how tissue can bulge through the muscle wall.

Understanding the Types

The most common type is an inguinal hernia. That’s when parts of the abdomen (often the intestines) bulge through the wall of the lower abdomen. Inguinal comes from the Latin word for “groin.”

Other types include:

  • Umbilical hernia, which occurs around the belly button
  • Incisional hernia, which is a bulge through a scar
  • Hiatal hernia, which allows the stomach to bulge up into the chest through an opening in the diaphragm

Obviously, these can be painful. They may also create a noticeable bulge. Depending on the organ or tissue that is bulging out, it may have an impact on how well the organ can function.

What Causes Them?

A hernia can happen for a number of reasons, or even a combination of reasons. Some people are born with weak muscle walls, or with an opening in their muscle wall. For others, the weakened area may develop later in life.

Certain biological or lifestyle factors can increase the risk of a weakened muscle wall and a hernia. For example, someone with chronic constipation has an increased risk of an inguinal hernia. That’s because the constipation causes frequent pressure in the abdomen. Another risk factor is repeated heavy lifting or similar activities, which creates frequent pressure in the abdomen.

Treating a Hernia and Preventing Complications

It’s important to treat a hernia early to prevent complications. The most concerning complication is when it becomes strangulated. This is when blood flow has been cut off to the tissue that’s out of place. Without treatment, the strangulated tissue can die from lack of oxygen.

To treat it and prevent complications, doctors can move the tissue back in place with surgery. In some cases, they may place a small mesh piece on the muscle wall to close and strengthen it. This may reduce the risk of future hernias.

If you think you may have a hernia, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor as soon as possible. While surgery may be intimidating, treatment may improve you quality of life and reduce the risk of dangerous complications.