Inguinal hernias (IH) seldom make the headlines. Yet they’re one of the most common types of hernia, affecting millions of Americans and accounting for about 700,000 operations a year.
They occur when soft tissue, usually part of the intestine, protrudes through a weak point in the groin, where the abdomen meets the thigh. The resulting bulge can be painful, sometimes excruciatingly so, especially when you cough or lift a heavy object.
Some people develop or acquire the abdominal weakness that leads to a hernia in adulthood. But more often the weakness occurs at birth, when the abdominal lining (peritoneum) doesn’t close properly. And although far more men than women have inguinal hernias, no one is immune, including infants, pregnant women and older adults.
Although not necessarily dangerous in themselves, inguinal hernias can lead to life-threatening complications. For that reason, your doctor is likely to recommend surgical removal of a hernia that’s painful or growing larger. The good news is that it’s not the same hernia operation your father may have had, with a large abdominal incision, a long hospital stay and weeks of immobility. Instead, many inguinal hernias now can be successfully repaired with a technique that uses several small incisions (laparoscopy), leading to a faster, less painful recovery.
Signs and Symptoms of Inguinal Hernias
Some inguinal hernias don’t cause any symptoms, and you may not know you have one until your doctor discovers it during a routine medical exam. Often, however, you can see and feel the bulge created by the protruding intestine. The bulge is usually more obvious when you stand upright.
Other signs and symptoms may include:
- Inguinal hernias cause pain or discomfort in your groin, especially when bending over, coughing or lifting
- A heavy or dragging sensation in your groin
- Occasionally, in men, pain and swelling in the scrotum around the testicles when the protruding intestine descends into the scrotum
Signs and symptoms in children
Inguinal hernias in newborns and children result from a weakness in the abdominal wall that’s present at birth. Sometimes the hernia may only be visible when an infant is crying, coughing or straining during a bowel movement. In an older child, a hernia is likely to be more apparent when the child coughs, strains during a bowel movement or stands for a long period of time.
Causes of Inguinal Hernias
Some hernias have no apparent cause. But many occur as a result of increased pressure within the abdomen, a pre-existing weak spot in the abdominal wall or a combination of the two.
In men, the weak spot usually occurs along the inguinal canal. This is the area where the spermatic cord, which contains the tube that carries sperm (vas deferens) as well as blood vessels and nerves, enters the scrotum.
In women, the inguinal canal carries a ligament that helps hold the uterus in place, and hernias sometimes occur where connective tissue from the uterus attaches to tissue surrounding the pubic bone.
Men are more likely to have an inherent weakness along the inguinal canal than women are because of the way males develop in the womb. In the male fetus, the testicles form in the abdomen and then move down the inguinal canal into the scrotum. Shortly after birth, the inguinal canal closes almost completely, leaving just enough room for the spermatic cord to pass through, but not enough to allow the testicles to move back into the abdomen.
Sometimes, however, the canal doesn’t close properly, leaving a weakened area. There’s less chance that the inguinal canal won’t close after birth in female babies. In fact, women are more likely to develop hernias in the femoral canal, an opening near the inguinal canal where the femoral artery, vein and nerve pass through.
Weaknesses can also occur in the abdominal wall later in life, especially after an injury or certain operations in the abdominal cavity.
With or without a pre-existing weakness, extra pressure in the abdomen can cause a hernia. This pressure may result from straining during bowel movements or urination, from heavy lifting and from pregnancy or excess weight. Even chronic coughing or sneezing can cause abdominal muscles to tear.
Prevention of Inguinal Hernias
You can’t prevent the congenital defect that may lead to an inguinal hernia, but the following steps can help reduce strain on your abdominal muscles and tissues:
- Prevent Inguinal Hernias by Maintain a healthy weight.
If you think you may be overweight, talk to your doctor about the best exercise and diet plan for you.
- Emphasize high-fiber foods.
Fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains are good for your overall health. They’re also packed with fiber that can help prevent constipation and straining.
- Prevent IH’s by Lift heavy objects carefully or avoid heavy lifting altogether.
If you have to lift something heavy, always bend from your knees, not at your waist.
- Stop smoking.
In addition to increasing your risk of serious diseases such as cancer, emphysema and heart disease, smoking often causes a chronic cough that can lead to or aggravate an inguinal hernia.
- Prevent Hernias by not relying on a truss for support.
Contrary to what you may have heard, wearing a truss isn’t the best long-term solution for an inguinal hernia. A truss won’t protect against complications or correct the underlying problem, although your doctor may recommend wearing one before surgery.
Treatment for IH
If your hernia is small and isn’t bothering you, your doctor may recommend a watch-and-wait approach. But growing or painful hernias usually require surgical repair to relieve discomfort and prevent serious complications. There are two general types of hernia operations:
In this procedure, your surgeon makes an incision in your groin and pushes the protruding intestine back into your abdomen, then repairs the weakened or torn muscle by sewing it together. Following the operation, you’ll be encouraged to move about as possible, but it may be as long as 4 to 6 weeks before you’re able to fully resume your normal activities.
In this procedure, which is something like patching a tire, your surgeon inserts a piece of synthetic mesh to cover the entire inguinal area, including all potential hernia openings. The patch is usually secured with sutures, clips or staples. Hernioplasty can be performed conventionally, with a single long incision over the hernia. But it’s more often done laparoscopically, using several small incisions rather than one large one. A fiber-optic tube with a tiny camera is inserted into your abdomen through one incision, and miniature instruments are inserted through the other incisions. Your surgeon then performs the operation using the video camera as a guide.
Advantages of laparoscopic repair include less discomfort and scarring following surgery and a quicker return to normal activities — most people are back to work within a few days. The procedure is a good choice for people whose hernias recur following traditional hernia surgery because laparoscopic methods allow surgeons to work around scar tissue from earlier repair. It’s also good for people who have hernias on both sides of the body (bilateral inguinal hernias).
You may not be a candidate for laparoscopic hernia repair if you have a very large hernia, if your intestine is pushed down into the scrotum or if you’ve had previous pelvic surgery.
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