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Hernias 101 - What Is a Hernia and What Can Cause One?

Hernia written on a chalk board

With plans for spring cleaning, remodeling, and other ambitious projects on the horizon, the possibility of heavy lifting being a part of those plans is certain. Along with the risk of back injury, many people may suffer from a hernia. Hernia? Isn't that limited to athletes and old people? Hernias occur more often than you may think. Having a better understanding of this condition and the repercussions of a hernia will shed light on this sometimes painful and surprisingly prevalent condition.

Types of Hernias

The most common type of hernia is abdominal, and the variations depend on its location: according to the American Hernia Society, umbilical hernias appear around the navel; inguinal hernias occur near the creases where the abdomen and the upper thighs meet; and incisional hernias occur after surgery at the site of the incision.

In other words, everyone is at risk of getting a hernia.

Experts estimate that over one million surgeries are performed each year to repair an abdominal wall hernia, which is described as a tear or a hole in the body's tissue which allows another body part to protrude, causing a bulge. "Patients may have pain or discomfort from this condition, or it may not become painful until the patient coughs, sneezes, or lifts something," says Daniel J. Vargo, MD, with University of Utah Health's General Surgery Services.

Although men are more likely to use a hernia as an excuse for spending all day on the couch, research shows that abdominal hernias occur equally, if not more often, in women.

Common Hernia Causes

  1. Obesity—Those extra pounds increase the strain and weaken your abdominal muscles, making them more prone to developing a hernia.
  2. Family History—Although family history may not guarantee a hernia, research shows it is a reliable predictor of one occurring.
  3. Pregnancy—The risk is small, but studies show that pregnancy is associated with an increase in the risk of hernia recurrence.
  4. Constipation—The constant strain may cause a portion of your intestine to get trapped in the abdominal wall. This can lead to some painful problems with the bowel. If bowel movements are a struggle, see a doctor.
  5. Chronic Cough—Often associated with the effects of smoking, constant coughing weakens the abdominal wall.
  6. Injury—Most sports-related hernias occur in the groin and don't appear as a bulge. But if left untreated, it can evolve into an inguinal hernia.

Surgery is a common treatment, but Vargo says that he has seen many cases where surgery wasn't required. "Not everyone with a hernia needs to have it fixed because it isn't affecting daily activity," says Vargo. "But if you have pain, surgery is recommended."

Tips to Decrease the Risk of a Hernia

  1. Maintain a healthy weight. Rapid weight loss and weight gain place pressure on the abdominal wall.
  2. Don't smoke.
  3. Change lifting stance. Lift with the legs, not the back.
  4. Change your diet to improve bowel movements.

It’s tempting to make light of the things that happen “down there.” But the truth is that hernias are serious and often painful conditions. If you are suffering from discomfort or abdominal pain, talk with your doctor about the possibility of a hernia. The treatment is easy, and the result is a satisfying, pain-free life.