A hernia occurs when the muscles of the abdomen become weak because of a natural flaw in the abdominal wall, or through excessive strain caused by heavy lifting, significant weight gain, constant coughing, or difficulty with bowel movement or urination.

Part of an organ, usually the intestines, then pushes through the weak spot or tear to form a bulge under the skin.

About two-thirds of hernias develop near the groin (inguinal hernia), but they can also appear in the upper thigh (femoral hernia), around the belly button (umbilical hernia), or along a previous incision (incisional hernia). Nearly 700,000 abdominal hernia operations are performed each year in the United States.

Risk factors for developing an inguinal hernia include being male, having a family history of hernias, cystic fibrosis, persistent cough, extra weight, pregnancy, premature birth, previous hernia, or difficulty with bowel movement or urination.

Common symptoms of a hernia are discomfort or pain in the groin area that get worse when bending or lifting, a bulge in the groin or abdomen, nausea and constipation, and a feeling of fullness or dull ache.

Most hernias can be pushed gently back into the abdominal cavity. Applying an ice pack to reduce swelling might help the hernia slide in more easily. However, if the hernia cannot be pushed back through the abdominal wall, surgery might be necessary.

There are two general types of hernia operations, herniorrhaphy and hernioplasty.

Congenital defects that lead to an inguinal hernia cannot be avoided, but certain steps can be taken to reduce strain on abdominal muscles and tissues.

  • Stay within a normal weight range.
  • Eat a high-fiber diet.
  • Lift heavy objects properly.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Do not rely on a truss (hernia belt) for support.

Preventing hernias

While some hernias may be present at birth, you can take steps to prevent a hernia from occurring or getting worse. If you are overweight, your first step should be to lose excess weight and begin a sensible exercise program that includes strengthening your abdominal muscles. Avoid lifting heavy weights. Also, if you often need to strain in order to have a bowel movement, talk to your doctor about medications to soften the stool or ways to improve your diet.

For more information about hernia repair, check with your doctor.

Dr. Carlos Montenegro is a board-certified surgeon with Hilton Head Regional Healthcare. hiltonheadregional.com.