Understanding Hiatal Hernia -- Diagnosis and Treatment
How Is a Hiatal Hernia Diagnosed?
A physical exam for hiatal hernia is similar to that for heartburn, with two additions: X-rays may be ordered to show the hernia, and if anemia is a concern, a blood sample may be taken to check your red blood cell count.
A hiatal hernia can be diagnosed with a specialized X-ray study that allows visualization of the esophagus and stomach (barium swallow) or with endoscopy (a test that allows the doctor to view the hernia directly). An esophageal manometry test (pressure study) may also be performed in which the strength and muscle coordination of the esophagus is measured while swallowing. A pH test can also measure the acid levels in the esophagus.
Not everyone with GERD has heartburn, but the primary symptoms of GERD are heartburn, regurgitation, and nausea.
Heartburn usually is described as a burning pain in the middle of the chest. It may start high in the abdomen or may extend up the neck or back. Sometimes the pain may be sharp or pressure-like, rather than burning. Such pain can mimic heart pain (angina). Typically, heartburn related to GERD is seen more commonly after a meal. Other symptoms of GERD include:
Most people do not experience any symptoms of their hiatal hernia, so no treatment is necessary.
But if you do have heartburn, there are many things you can do at home to relieve your symptoms: Refrain from eating large meals; instead, eat four or five small meals each day, and eat slowly. This, along with maintaining a healthy weight, will minimize abdominal pressure and heartburn. Reducing fat in your diet and avoiding foods that aggravate your symptoms may also substantially reduce symptoms. Also, avoid caffeine and alcohol, which tend to worsen symptoms. Smoking is an intense heartburn generator; if you smoke, stop.
In most cases, if lifestyle changes don't work, your health care provider can either prescribe or point you to over-the-counter remedies for heartburn symptoms.
Paraesophageal hernias, however, should be repaired by surgery because the danger of strangulation is high. Surgery may also be needed when sliding hernias bleed or become large, strangulated, or inflamed. In surgery, the hiatus is reinforced and the stomach is repositioned. This surgery is now commonly done using a laparoscope, a thin, telescope-like instrument for viewing inside the abdomen. This approach is less invasive and allows for faster recovery. Typically, a one- to two-night hospital stay is required and regular activity may be resumed in two weeks.