What Is an Inguinal Hernia?

If you feel a pain in your groin when you cough or lift something heavy, you may have what doctors call an inguinal hernia. It happens when a part of the small intestine or fat pushes through a weak area of your lower abdominal wall.

This type of hernia is named for the inguinal canal. That's a passage in the lower abdominal wall that houses blood vessels and nerves, as well as the spermatic cord in boys and men, and ligaments that support the uterus in girls and women.

An inguinal hernia could be a serious health problem, so you shouldn't ignore symptoms. A physical exam is usually all it takes to diagnose the problem. If the hernia is large enough, you'll need surgery to fix it.

How Do They Form?

A baby can get an indirect inguinal hernia if the lining of their abdomen doesn't fully close while they're developing. What's left is an opening at the upper part of the inguinal canal. That's where a hernia can take shape.

Older adults usually get a direct inguinal hernia because the muscles of their abdominal wall can weaken.

Women rarely have this type of hernia. The broad ligament of the uterus is right behind the abdominal wall, which supports it and shields the inguinal canal.

Men don't have that barrier, so stress and gradual weakening of their abdominal muscles over time make it more likely something can push through to the inguinal canal.

Who Gets Them?

It happens in 2% to 3% of male babies, but less than 1% of baby girls. About 1 in 4 males will have one at some time in their life. It's most common in men over the age of 40.

Abdominal surgery can make you more likely to develop a direct inguinal hernia. A family history of this condition raises your odds, too.

Smokers may have a higher chance of having inguinal hernias, as well as many other health problems.

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Prevention

You can't prevent being born with a weaker abdominal wall. But you can take steps to avoid having problems because of it, such as not smoking and keeping your weight in check.

If you have abdominal surgery, be careful afterward:

  • Use your legs, not your back, when lifting.
  • Avoid lifting heavy things.
  • Try not to strain when you poop.

Symptoms

You could have a direct inguinal hernia if you:

  • Hurt when you cough, bend, or lift something heavy
  • Feel pressure or weakness in your groin
  • Have swelling around your testicles

You may be able to gently push the bump back up into your abdomen to relieve some of the discomfort.

Diagnosis

See your doctor if you have symptoms of an inguinal hernia. Your doctor will check your groin area for swelling or a bulge. He'll probably ask you to stand and cough. This can make a hernia more obvious.

If it hasn't produced any swelling that the doctor can see, he may order imaging tests, like an abdominal ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI.

In some cases, if your hernia isn't treated, you could develop a serious complication called "strangulation." It happens when the small intestine gets stuck in the inguinal canal and can't be moved or massaged back into the abdomen. As a result of being "strangled," the intestines lose their blood supply. The affected part of the intestines can die.

This is a major medical emergency. If you have an inguinal hernia and your belly hurts a lot, don't wait -- call 911.

Treatment

If you have an inguinal hernia, a high-fiber diet with plenty of veggies, fresh fruits, and whole grains may help you avoid constipation, which can lead to painful symptoms.

Surgery can prevent strangulation, and it's the only way to fix an inguinal hernia. The doctor will push the bulging tissue back inside and strengthen your abdominal wall with stitches and perhaps mesh. She might be able to do this through a small cut in your belly using a special tool -- a procedure called laparoscopy -- which means you'll probably hurt less and heal faster than traditional surgery.

An inguinal hernia can be quite painful, but it's definitely treatable. If you think you have one, see your doctor. It won't get better on its own.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on September 8, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Inguinal Hernia."

Mayo Clinic: "Inguinal hernia: Diagnosis," "Inguinal Hernia: Symptoms," "Inguinal Hernia: Overview."

PubMed Health: "Spermatic Cord."

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