Hernias and what they mean

Hernias are a common issue for many of us. Although they’re often harmless and relatively pain-free, they can be the source of discomfort at times, and can be unsightly too, with a visible bulge.

You might have other symptoms such as pressure, a cough, heartburn or difficulty in swallowing.

Some people are born with weakened muscles or tissue which hasn’t fully developed, and sometimes doctors will identify this when you’re  a baby. They can also develop in later life, as our bodies age and the muscles weaken. Hernias can become worse due to certain activities, such as lifting heavy objects, straining when coughing and sneezing, or overusing the same muscle.

What is a hernia?

A hernia is a tear in the muscular wall that happens when a weakness in the muscle is compromised. This can allow an internal organ, or your intestines, to bulge outwards. Hernias often show no symptoms, other than causing a noticeable swell in your stomach or groin area.

Several types of hernias can develop, including inguinal hernias, umbilical hernias, hiatus hernias, and femoral hernias. They usually occur in the groin, around the abdominal area, or between the chest and hips.

Types of hernia

Inguinal hernias

These are the most common type of hernias, and mainly affect men. They occur when internal fat tissue pushes through the muscle wall, with part of the bowel or intestine protruding into the groin area. These hernias usually form at the top of your inner thigh.

There are two types of inguinal hernias, indirect and direct. Direct hernias occur as a type of birth defect, while indirect inguinal hernias are a result of the natural aging process and excessive strain on the stomach area.

Femoral hernias

Femoral hernias occur when fatty tissue and internal organs poke into the groin area at the top of the inner thigh. Femoral hernias mostly impact women, and aren’t as common as inguinal hernias. This type of hernia is often a painful bump or lump on your upper thigh, close to the groin area. Femoral hernias are often more visible when you strain or cough, and less so when laying down.

Umbilical hernias

Umbilical hernias are common amongst babies, infants, and young children. They happen when a sac forms from fat and fluids and part of the intestine. The formed sac then protrudes from a weakened opening in the muscle wall, causing the hernia to push out near the navel area. As the hernia forms over the belly button, you can often see or feel a bulge-like shape.

Typically, umbilical hernias don’t cause pain or discomfort, and they’re more noticeable when the muscles strain. This can happen when coughing or putting pressure on the stomach by crying or laughing. Although umbilical hernias are common amongst young boys and girls, they are most common in premature babies.

Hiatus hernias

A hiatus hernia happens when part of your stomach (usually the upper section) squeezes through a gap in your diaphragm and into your chest cavity. Your diaphragm sits at the base of your chest and is a thin layer of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. Hiatus hernias are caused by applying pressure on the abdominal cavity (where your internal organs are) and can cause acid to leak from your stomach into your oesophagus. Pressure in this area is usually increased due to coughing, straining, or vomiting.

People of any age and gender can experience this type of hernia, although it’s more common in people over the age of 50. Symptoms can include heartburn, acid reflux and indigestion.

If you think you may have a hernia, it’s best to get in touch with your local GP for advice. Many types of hernias are often symptom-less and pain-free, but it’s always best to speak with your GP to put your mind at ease if you have any concerns.