What Do You Really Know About Hernias?Proactive Health
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
Hernias are probably one of the most mundane and common, but sometimes quite painful, health conditions. They were in the news recently when it was reported that Rand Paul, a well-known member of the United States Senate, would be traveling to Canada for hernia surgery. The reports didn’t give much more detail except that he developed the hernia as a result of another injury, and the hospital where he would be having surgery specializes in hernia repair.
Of course, this made me wonder what kind of hernia he is being treated for, whether we can reduce the risk of hernias and what role nutrition and lifestyle play in hernia prevention and care?
The Answers May Surprise You.
But, first things first. In case you have the mental picture of your grandfather wearing a funny-looking truss to “protect his hernia,” the medical definition of a hernia is a good place to start.
Basically, a hernia happens when an organ – for example your intestines or your bladder – starts to protrude or make its way through a weak spot or an opening (either normal or abnormal) in the muscle or connective tissue that usually keeps the organ in place. A good example is when body fat or intestines bulge through a hole in the belly button (the umbilicus).
A hernia, if left untreated, can cause health problems ranging from mild swelling and pain to life-threatening situations if the hernia begins to restrict blood supply to the organ. Without sufficient blood supply, an organ cannot get the oxygen and nutrients that it needs to function properly.
Turns out that there are more than fifty different kinds of hernias that can affect us at virtually any age! Here are a few of the more common hernias you should know about:
- Inguinal – The inguinal canal is what a man’s testes “travel” through at birth to their eventual location in the scrotum. In women, the canal surrounds the round ligament of the uterus. This type of hernia can happen at any age, and it impacts the intestines and bladder (as well as body fat). Symptoms include swelling and pain. If the hernia begins to constrict or obstruct the intestines, the pain may be intense and accompanied by vomiting (get to the ER if this happens). Surgery is the most common treatment. This type of hernia is the most prevalent with more than 70 percent of hernias being inguinal. They occur more frequently among men.
Interestingly, a recent study provided evidence that hormones play a major role in causing inguinal hernias in older men. The belief is that altered sex hormones levels, which occurs with aging, causes muscle tissue in the lower abdomen to become more weak and scar.
“We have discovered that both increased estrogen action and decreased testosterone action leads to inguinal hernia formation [in older men],” said one of the lead doctors of the study, in one report.
- Umbilical – Since your belly button (the umbilicus) is not covered by any muscles, it is especially prone to developing a hernia as a result of being weakened by the stretching that conditions such as pregnancy and obesity can cause. It can also be congenital. This type of hernia also has a tendency to get bigger over time. So if you suspect you have one, get to a competent medical professional as soon as possible to have it treated. Fat and intestines can get trapped in the hernia, which usually requires surgery. If this occurs in an infant, it usually will go away on its own as your baby’s abdominal wall gets stronger. Between three and 10 percent of hernias are umbilical, affecting between 10 and 20 percent of newborns.
- Incisional – This hernia occurs when gaps develop in the scar tissue resulting from a surgery (hence the name “incisional”). They can be caused by a variety of factors, either alone or in combination, including infection, being overweight, or poor healing. As with most hernias, surgery is required for repair. Approximately two percent of hernias are incisional.
- Hiatal – To get to your stomach, your esophagus passes through a small hole in your diaphragm called the hiatus. If your stomach begins to move in to and/or through this hole, a hiatus hernia develops. Sometimes, there are no symptoms at all that this is happening and at other times you may feel heartburn or some stomach discomfort. Depending on the severity of this hernia, some are treated with medications while others may need surgery. Others may need no treatment at all. This type of hernia is most common in people over 50-years-old.
- Femoral – The “cousin” to an inguinal hernia, since it occurs in the outer groin region while an inguinal hernia occurs in the “inner” groin. A femoral hernia occurs when the intestine bulges into the canal that carries the femoral artery into the leg. It is more common in women.
- Epigastric – Somewhat common, this type of hernia occurs in the abdominal wall just above your belly button and below your breast bone. There usually are no symptoms, although you may feel a bump between these two points. Rather than your intestines pushing through, the bump is usually composed of fat.
What Causes Hernias?
Even though there are a wide variety and severity of hernias, they are all caused when strain pushes an organ (or fat in some cases) through an opening or a weak spot in muscle or tissue. In some cases, this weakness is present from birth while for others it develops later in life.
Anything that can create strain or pressure in your abdomen can create a hernia – sometimes immediately, sometimes over time – including heavy lifting, constipation, pregnancy, a chronic cough or diarrhea. At the same time, anything that can weaken your abdomen and core muscles can make it more likely that such a strain will make a hernia more likely to develop. Risk factors include being overweight, smoking, older age, surgery and having a sedentary lifestyle.
How to Be Proactive
While you can’t always prevent a hernia from happening, there is a lot you can do to minimize your risk or, if you do have one that does not require medical intervention, treat the symptoms. Steps you can immediately take are:
- Quitting smoking – This should be number one your proactive healthcare list no matter what other health issues you may be concerned about. For more information about quitting smoking, check out this pH Labs blog on how nutrition and exercise can help you quit for good.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight – In addition to reducing stress and strain that can contribute to a hernia, preventing obesity has a wealth of health benefits including cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and blood glucose management (which reduces the risk of diabetes). Maintaining a healthy body weight may even help prevent depression or reduce the symptoms of depression.
- Balanced diet – The foundation of getting and staying healthy is making sure your body gets the nutrients it needs in the right amounts. The easiest way to do this is through eating a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, which are full of essential vitamins and minerals, along with preparing meals at home.
Another extremely important nutrient, which you can get from fruits and vegetables, is fiber. “If you battle with chronic constipation, work on getting enough fiber, drinking plenty of water, and if necessary using bulk-agents like Metamucil and Citrucel,” according to one source. Preventing constipation and strain is key in hernia prevention and care.
- Minimize strain – It is important to avoid strain especially during bowel movements or urination, and avoid lifting weights and other objects that are too heavy for you; talk with your healthcare provider to see if adding an exercise program to your health routine could help reduce your risk of hernias.
If, despite your best efforts at prevention, you think you may have a hernia, go and see your doctor. Recent data indicates that almost one million hernia repairs are successfully performed in the United States every year, so you will be in good company.
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.