What are hernias?

Hernia surgery is one of the most common operations performed in the United States, with over half a million surgeries each year.

In general terms, a hernia means that one of numerous internal organs protrudes through the wall of muscle or tissue that normally contains it. Most hernias occur in the abdominal area when a portion of your intestines pushes through a weak spot in your abdominal wall.

Abdominal and groin hernias will produce a noticeable lump or bulge that can usually be pushed back in, or will even disappear when lying down. Extreme movement from coughing, straining during a bowel movement, physical activity or even laughing may make the lump reappear after it has been pushed in. The most typical symptoms include increased pain at the site of the bulge, sharp pain while lifting, an increased bulge over time, a dull aching pain and/or the sense of feeling full or unusual bloating.

A doctor can and should conduct a physical exam as the first step in diagnosing a hernia. In some cases, imaging may be needed to accurately diagnose the condition. It is important to identify a hernia because if left unattended, they can grow larger and develop severe complications.

Hernias typically do not heal themselves if left untreated. Surgery may be the only way to repair them, but a physician should be able to recommend the best treatment for a specific type of hernia. If necessary, you will be referred to a surgeon who will assess which procedure is necessary for your type of hernia.

One main concern of a hernia is strangulation, which constitutes a medical emergency. It occurs when blood supply to the herniated intestine is blocked. Strangulation usually results in increased pain and tenderness in the area and an inability to push the hernia back into the abdominal cavity.

Hernias are partly genetic and thus are more common in certain families. Risk factors include obesity, smoking and previous abdominal surgeries. Better health in general equals less disease. Although individuals with a family history of hernias are at a greater risk of developing them, maintaining a healthy weight is important.

A diet that is high in fiber, full of vegetables, fruit and lean proteins, coupled with exercise that focuses on the core muscles — abdomen, glutes, lower back and hips — can get one on the road to not only preventing or minimizing the effect of a hernia, but it can also help prevent other life threatening diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Tweet @TheDoctors and let Dr. Stork know you enjoyed his #SamsClubMag Ask The Doctors feature article.

Travis Stork, M.D., is a board-certified emergency room physician and the host of the Emmy Award-winning TV series The Doctors, The New York Times best-selling author of The Doctor’s Diet, and The Doctor’s Diet Cookbook. Visit thedoctorstv.com for more information.