For guys who’ve ever had a wellness exam or sports physical, they’re probably familiar with a routine when a doctor puts on a latex glove, asks them to drop trou, and turn their heads and cough. The doctor is checking for a condition called a hernia.
Although research shows hernias are generally more common in men, women can still develop them, too. With June being Hernia Awareness Month, it’s a good time to check up and check in with your body to learn about the signs and symptoms, the causes, and how to steer clear of hernias.
A hernia is a bulge that’s caused by an organ pushing through an abnormal opening in the muscle or the tissue that holds it in place. Most hernias are located in the groin, but they can also appear in the upper thigh and belly areas, says Dr. Javier Varela of the Oviedo Medical Center in Oviedo, Florida.
This “weakening of the native tissues ... can come from aging, chronic heavy lifting, coughing or straining due to urinary or constipation issues,” Varela says. “Other common causes include genetics and smoking.”
And there are several common types of hernias: inguinal (inner groin), femoral (outer groin), umbilical (belly button), hiatal (upper stomach), and incisional (resulting from an incision). “Incisional hernias are related to prior surgical scars and may be located anywhere within the anterior or posterior abdominal wall,” Varela says.
Dr. Nora Meenaghan, a surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, says hernias don’t discriminate. “Anyone can get a hernia,” Meenaghan says. “Men are more at risk for groin hernias than women because of differences in anatomy. We are probably more at risk as we age and havemore opportunities to strain our abdominal wall.”
Don’t ignore the pain
Dr. Andrew Bates, director of the Stony Brook Comprehensive Hernia Center in Stony Brook, New York, says most hernias show up as a noticeable bulge.
“The bulge may or may not be painful, but most have some level of discomfort,” Bates says.
“Hernias can also cause internal organs to become trapped or incarcerated in the opening of the hernia. This is an emergency situation, and people should go to the hospital immediately if that Happens.”
Although nonoperative remedies can help prevent the bulging, the treatment of a hernia is usually surgical. “No two hernias are the same, since there are large variations in size, the patient’s medical history or even history of previous repairs,” Bates says. “However, when done properly, the chance of a hernia coming back after surgery is around 1 percent to 5 percent.”
Meenaghan says hernias never go away on their own, and they typically get larger over time. During the recovery process after the one-day surgery, she says, “we typically ask patients to take it easy and avoid heavy lifting for a few weeks. Pain from surgery typically is gone after the first few weeks.”
There’s no way to completely prevent developing hernias, but you can take some precautions.
“Maintaining a healthy weight decreases strain on the abdominal wall over time and may prevent existing hernias from worsening or the recurrence of hernias that have been repaired,” she says.
If you experience any pain or discomfort that strains the groin or abdominal area, have it looked at by your doctor. “I don’t like to tell people to limit their lifestyle, but seeing a doctor is important if someone feels bulging or pain,” Bates says.