What Is a Hernia? Everything You Need to Know

By Carolyn Heneghan September 02, 2015 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

If you watch your share of professional sports, you've likely heard the word hernia thrown around by reporters discussing a player's recent injury. Maybe you even know somebody from your old softball team or running club who had one. But if you've never dealt with one yourself (lucky you!) or helped a family member or friend through the process, you might be asking: What is a hernia, exactly?

First of all, know that the condition is extremely common: Figures from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine show that more than 20 million hernias are treated worldwide every year. There are also different types of hernias and two common ways to treat them.

What Is a Hernia?

While hernias may not seem like a big deal because of how common they are, you might think otherwise when you realize what's actually happening in the body when a hernia occurs. In short, tissue bulges out through an opening in the muscles, which can include any part of the abdominal wall. That doesn't sound pretty, does it?

The American College of Surgeons (ACS) says that the most common hernia sites are the groin (inguinal), which occurs more often in men, and the navel (umbilical). For women, femoral hernias, which show as a bulge in the groin, upper thigh, or labia, are often seen.

There are other ways to define a hernia outside of its location. When a hernia can be pushed back into the opening, it is called a reducible hernia. If it cannot be pushed back, doctors call this irreducible, or incarcerated. A hernia can also be strangulated, which is when the intestine is stuck in the hernia pouch, decreasing blood supply to the intestine. Strangulated hernias need to be treated quickly.

Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

How in the world do hernias happen? They are generally caused by muscle weakness and heavy straining. You'd do well to watch your weight and diet, as with many other conditions, and be careful to not bite off more than you can chew when it comes to lifting, whether in the weight room or when you're moving into a new house or apartment.

After learning what a hernia is, you might think symptoms are easily noticeable, and you wouldn't be wrong. The ACS lists a bulge in the groin, accompanied by coughing, straining, and general discomfort at the site (whether a burning sensation or increased pressure). In cases of strangulation, symptoms may include sharp abdominal pain and vomiting.

Because the bulge indicating a hernia protrudes from the body under the skin, a hernia is easy to self-diagnose. When you visit the doctor, they will usually check the site to confirm the diagnosis before possibly running tests such as a digital finger exam, blood tests, and a urinalysis. If the hernia is difficult to see or feel, your doctor may perform an ultrasound in the afflicted area.


Hernia treatment typically means only one thing: surgery. There are two common types of surgery for hernias: open and laparoscopic. Your doctor will decide on the type based on the hernia size and location, along with some other factors. An open repair involves making an incision above the hernia site before sewing the muscle closed. For laparoscopic procedures, the surgeon will insert small hollow tubes, called ports, into small incisions in the abdomen. The ports are used as surgical tools to sew the offending muscle back up.

No, hernias are not pretty, and nobody wants surgery, but you can rest easy knowing how common, recognizable, and treatable hernias are. While it's certainly something you hope to avoid, you can provide these words of comfort to a family member or close friend if you have to help them through the process.

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