What is a hernia? : A guide to Hernias

A hernia is the medical name for the protrusion of tissues or internal organs –in the form of a ‘lump’ through the wall of the abdomen. This occurs as a result of a weakness or incision in the abdominal wall and usually requires surgical treatment.

Basically, part of the organs or tissues push through the abdominal wall which then appears as a swelling or soft lump.

Your internal organs and body tissues are normally kept in place via strong abdominal muscles, layers of fat and skin but if there is a weak point in these muscles then these will protrude, leading to a hernia.

The most common type of hernia is the inguinal hernia: this occurs when part of the intestines protrude into the lower abdomen, towards the groin.

What causes a hernia?

Heavy lifting is one of the most common causes of a hernia but there are factors as well which include:

  • Excessive coughing
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Excessive exercise, e.g. power lifting
  • Constipation/straining on the toilet
  • Old age
  • Poorly healed scar tissue/wound following an injury, accident or surgery.
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • Genetic – some hernias such as the umbilical hernia develop at birth

These apply to all types of hernias. But there are also hernia-specific causes such as a congenital defect which is a feature of umbilical hernias. This is where the umbilical cord pushes through a weak part of the abdominal wall and tends to develop in babies and young children.

Find out more about umbilical hernias in our types of hernia section.

Sometimes a hernia can develop for no reason at all.

Gender can also be a cause of a hernia. Men are especially prone to developing inguinal hernias which can be attributed to their anatomy. The male reproductive system contains a small channel called the ‘inguinal canal’ which is located within the abdominal wall. This channel contains blood vessels and also enabled the testicles to descend into the scrotum but it can be a weak spot for hernias. A section of the lower intestine or bodily tissues can protrude into this channel which then results in the formation of a hernia.

Anything which increases pressure inside or outside the abdomen can cause a hernia.

Is there a risk factor for a hernia?

Anyone can develop a hernia but there are a few factors which can increase the risk of this happening. These include:

  • Lifting heavy objects at work
  • Sports that involve lifting weights or excessive amounts of twisting or turning, e.g. football
  • Constipation
  • Scar tissue from previous surgery
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Excessive coughing as a result of smoking

If you follow a healthy diet, take exercise and remember to bend your knees and straighten your back every time you lift something then this will reduce the risk of a hernia.

Symptoms of a hernia

If you have lifted a heavy object or weight then you may experience slight pain around the abdominal or groin area. It will feel as if something has ‘given way’and may be accompanied by a small lump. This lump will appear under the tissues of the abdominal wall.

This lump can be pushed back in but it will appear again when you cough or strain again. It will increase in size each time you do either of these or it may just slip in and out of place at intervals. Many men find that it gradually slips down into the scrotum (inguinal hernia).

You will find that this lump disappears when you are lying down.

A hernia isn’t usually painful but you will feel it as you bend over to pick up something or cough. It will often ache after physical activity or exercise.

Not every hernia causes symptoms and sometimes, there are cases in which a person has developed a hernia but has not realised this due to the absence of any symptoms.

If you suspect that you have developed a hernia then visit your GP. They are not considered a serious condition but there is the risk of a strangulated hernia if left untreated. A hernia can be treated via a simple operation and in many cases, can be performed as day surgery.

If you have developed a hernia the question is: what type of hernia is it? Find out more in the next section: types of hernia.

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