Like most problems in life, hernias only get bigger the longer they go ignored. What begins as mild discomfort can quickly evolve into excruciating pain and serious health complications, so anyone who suspects that they might have a hernia should seek treatment sooner rather than later.
While medications, dietary alterations and exercise can alleviate hernia symptoms, hernias do not heal; the only way to get rid of a hernia is through surgery. Sometimes hernias stop growing, but they never reduce in size. In worst case scenarios, an untreated hernia can grow to encompass all of the abdominal organs resulting in a collapse of the abdominal cavity. In such circumstances, surgery is no long an option because the pressure created by restoring the organs to their natural position could push the diaphragm up and collapse the patient’s lungs.
Unsurprisingly, small hernias are easier to repair and require less recovery time than larger hernias. Large hernias are more likely to recur than small ones, which is another reason why hernias should be addressed as soon as possible.
Untreated hernias of any size may become strangulated, which means that the hernia chokes off blood flow to part of the intestines or other organs. Such a situation can cause the organ to become gangrenous or even rupture necessitating immediate surgery. Correcting complications from a strangulated hernia is much more complicated than regular hernia repair, and recovery can take much longer. Symptoms of a strangulated hernia include intense abdominal pain, fever, constipation, nausea and vomiting; hernia patients who experience these symptoms should go to the closest emergency room immediately.
Untreated hiatal hernias can encourage stomach ulcers, sometimes causing patients to vomit blood, which also necessitates emergency treatment. Blood loss from hernia complications can also cause anemia.
Getting surgery early can help patients avoid any serious health issues. Most hernia repairs are long-term successes, and the procedure carries little risk of complications, so surgery is recommend in most cases.
What is a Hernia?
Hernias occur when part of an organ or tissue protrudes through an abnormal opening. This phenomenon most often happens when a portion of the intestine falls through a weak spot in the abdominal wall, which results in a bulge that can usually be seen or felt from outside the body. Hernias can appear near the navel, groin or any area where there has been a surgical incision. Some hernias grow suddenly, while others might take years to become noticeable. A person can be born with hernias, or they can develop later in life.
There are dozens of different types of hernias classified by the specific parts of the body they affect.
Hernia Risk Factors
Anyone can develop a hernia at any age, but smokers, the elderly and obese people are at a higher risk than the rest of the population. Patients with surgical incisions are also at a heightened risk for hernias. Hernias can develop due to injury, surgery, pregnancy, heavy lifting or no obvious reason at all. Some people are simply born with weak abdominal walls, which makes them more predisposed to hernias.
The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that about five million Americans currently have hernias. Inguinal hernias, or hernias in the groin area, are more common in men due to the empty region left behind when the testicles descend during puberty. Femoral hernias, which affect the upper thigh, are more prevalent in women and usually develop during pregnancy or childbirth.
Some children are born with umbilical hernias, which result from abdominal membrane or part of the intestine protruding from an opening in their abdominal wall. The protrusion is normally visible under the skin near the belly button when the infant cries or coughs. Male babies are also vulnerable to inguinal hernias. These hernias can be treated, but parents must take their child to a pediatrician immediately to determine if action needs to be taken to prevent serious health risks.
The most common and overt symptom of a hernia is pain that intensifies whenever the patient coughs, lifts heavy objects or stands for long periods of time. Such actions create pressure within the body, which pushes tissue into the effected area. Some hernia patients experience a chronic, dull ache whenever they are physically active. A sudden increase in pain may be indicative of a rapidly growing hernia. The next most noticeable symptom of a hernia is a lump or bulge in the abdomen or groin. The bulge may disappear when pressed upon, or it may be firm.
Hernia Diagnosis and Treatment
If a patient starts experiencing hernia symptoms, they should be examined by a doctor as soon as possible. If a diagnosis is confirmed, the patient should be referred to a surgeon for consultation. The surgeon can then determine if the hernia is reducible, which means that the tissue can be pushed back into its proper place. Reducible hernias, while very painful, do not pose any immediate health complications. Non-reducible hernias, on the other hand, can be potentially fatal if they become strangulated, so immediate action may be necessary to prevent organ damage.
How to Manage Hernia Pain
Losing weight and reducing physical activity can alleviate hernia pain. Regularly wearing a special truss or binder can also grant temporary relief. The only surefire way to eliminate a hernia forever is surgery. Patients should ask their doctors which pain management strategies will likely work best for them in the meantime.
Hernia Surgery 101
Aside from addressing potentially fatal health risks, having hernia surgery can greatly improve a patients quality of life by eliminating the chronic pain that hinders their everyday activities. All surgeries have possible risks or side effects, but modern procedures for hernia repair generally result in minimal pain after the operation. Many patients recover very quickly and experience immediate, long-lasting pain relief. People are afraid of surgery for various reasons, but the pain and potential health risks of untreated hernias are far worse than the mild discomfort often associated with surgery. It is important for patients to communicate honestly with their doctors about their concerns and symptoms to get the best treatment possible.
There are different surgical approaches to hernia repair, and its up to the surgeon to determine the best course of action for the individual patient. Depending on the severity of the hernia, the operation may take as little as 25 minutes and can be performed as an outpatient procedure under local anesthesia. The majority of hernia patients can go home within an hour or two after surgery, but those with strangulated hernias must be hospitalized.
Studies have found that using surgical mesh, rather than stitches, to repair abdominal hernias decreases the likelihood of recurrence; however, using mesh may carry a greater risk of infection. Mesh reduces the chances of the hernia recurring down to less than one percent. Patients should consult with their doctors and surgeons to decide on the best option for them.