What Is a Hernia?
A hernia happens when an internal part of the body protrudes through a weakness in the muscle or surrounding tissue wall. Most cases have no definitive cause, with ageing often a primary factor. Sometimes, hernias can result from a particular medical problem or repeated activity.
Some of the common causes of hernias are:
- Weakness in muscles as part of ageing
- Being overweight/obese
- Poor diet
- Lifting heavy objects
- Chronic constipation/straining on the toilet
- Straining to urinate
- Persistent cough
- Enlarged prostate
- Cystic fibrosis
- Peritoneal dialysis.
Types of Hernia
There are several types of hernia, the most common being:
- Inguinal hernia, when fatty tissue or part of the bowel pokes through the groin at the top of the inner thigh. Inguinal hernias are more common in men than women.
- Femoral hernia, which is similar to an inguinal hernia, albeit less common. These are more likely to occur in women.
- Hiatus hernia, when part of the stomach pushes up in your chest through an opening in the diaphragm, often causing acid reflux or heartburn.
- Umbilical hernia, when fatty tissue or part of the bowel pushes through near the belly button. This is more common in babies when the opening in the tummy where the umbilical cord pushes through doesn’t heal properly, but adults can be affected too.
You may go through life without knowing you have a hernia or just notice a swelling in your tummy or groin without any other issues. However, they can also cause a great deal of discomfort, including abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
So how do you relieve hernia pain?
Hernia repair surgery is the only surefire way to stop your hernia pain, but there are a few things you can do to make things a little easier if you are suffering.
1) Make some changes to your diet
Healthy eating can really make a difference. Eating less fatty and acidic foods can reduce acid reflux and heartburn caused by a hiatus hernia. Avoid foods that may cause you a stomach upset, such as spicy dishes, fried foods and junk food. Eating plenty of fibre can help keep your digestive system in tip-top condition and prevent constipation, so the less you strain, the less likely you are to make your hernia worse.
Fibre-rich foods such as leafy greens, sweet potatoes, apples and pears are great dietary choices. And don’t overeat! If you are full, stop — stuffing yourself will only weaken the stomach muscles further.
Maintaining a healthy diet can help you lose or maintain weight. This is important, as being overweight puts more pressure on your hernia and can cause more pain.
2) Avoid strenuous activity
Gentle exercise is great if you have a hernia as it can strengthen your abdominal muscles and help prevent weight gain. However, the key is not to overdo it. The best activity you can do is:
- Walking (no climbing mountains though!)
- Yoga (avoid positions that put too much strain on your stomach muscles, such as “upward dog”).
You should avoid any activities that cause you to strain, such as heavy lifting, whether that’s weights at the gym, carrying heavy boxes from your car or using heavy machinery or equipment at work or home.
3) Use an ice pack
For immediate relief of mild discomfort, you can use an ice pack on the site of your hernia for about 10-15 minutes, once or twice a day. Check with your doctor that it is safe for you to do this first. An icepack can help reduce inflammation and swelling, but be careful not to apply ice directly to the skin. It should be wrapped in a thin towel or cloth so as not to damage your skin.
4) Get your hernia repaired
Hernia repair is the only way to alleviate your pain entirely. A hernia will not get better on its own and will likely worsen over time. Your surgeon will either perform open or keyhole surgery to push the protruding tissue or organ back into place. They then stitch or place mesh over the affected area to strengthen the tissue and prevent another hernia from happening.
Unfortunately, there is a long waiting list for hernia repair surgery in the UK, so booking private hernia surgery may be the best option if you would like treatment to start immediately — especially if your hernia is causing you pain that affects your quality of life.
If your doctor says you need surgery, don’t let it go untreated. This could lead to the strangulation of organs (often the intestines) and make you seriously ill. You would then require emergency surgery, and it could cause permanent damage.
Routine hernia surgery takes less than an hour, and you will usually be home the same or the following day. Whether you need local or general anaesthesia depends on the type of surgery you have. In most cases, you will recover from surgery in 1-2 weeks, though it’s best to take it easy for 4-6 weeks to avoid complications.