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Hernias are relatively common and can affect anyone. But how do you know if you have one?

Hernias can be caused by a variety of circumstances. You might get one because of muscle weakness, straining from heavy lifting or a previous injury. When you get a hernia, an organ or fatty tissue protrudes through the wall of the cavity in which it is contained, typically in the abdomen.

“Sometimes people are born with weak abdominal muscles, and sometimes their abdominal muscles weaken with age,” explains Dr. Alanna Gretschel, a general surgeon at Geisinger. “Other causes of a hernia include repeated heavy lifting, constipation and persistent coughing or sneezing.”

Additionally, lifestyle factors can lead to hernias. “If you’re overweight, smoke or don’t have a healthy diet, that can weaken muscles in the abdominal wall,” says Dr. Gretschel.

The most common types of hernias

  • Inguinal hernia: When the intestine or the bladder extends into the abdominal wall or into the groin’s inguinal canal. This type of hernia mostly occurs in men.
  • Incisional hernia: When the intestine protrudes through the abdominal wall at the site of a previous surgery. This mostly occurs people who are older, overweight or inactive following abdominal surgery.
  • Femoral hernia: When part of the intestine causes a bulge in the upper part of the thigh, close to the groin. This is most common in women, particularly those who are pregnant or overweight.
  • Umbilical hernia: When part of the intestine extends into the umbilical opening in the abdominal area. Infants are susceptible to this. These hernias are usually harmless in children.
  • Hiatal hernia: When the upper part of the stomach squeezes through an opening in the diaphragm. A small one might be harmless, but a larger one can cause symptoms such as heartburn.

“You may have heard that you can ‘repair’ a hernia yourself if it’s small and not too painful, but it’s always wise to seek medical attention to make sure that the problem isn’t more serious,” says Dr. Gretschel. “Hernias cannot heal on their own — if left untreated, they usually get bigger and more painful, and can cause serious health risks in some cases.”

If the wall through which the intestine is protruding closes shut, it can cause a strangulated hernia, which cuts off blood flow to the bowel. This condition requires emergency surgery.

Signs that you or a loved one might have a hernia

  • A bulge in the groin or scrotum, or swelling in the scrotum
  • Discomfort in the groin that gets worse when you bend or lift something
  • Heaviness in the groin or abdomen
  • Pain or discomfort during a bowel movement or urination
  • Pain or discomfort toward the end of the day, particularly if you were standing a lot
  • Any symptoms of a strangulated hernia, which include fever, vomiting, nausea and severe cramping

Hernias in infants

If you’re a parent, you might notice a lump in your infant’s groin area while he or she is crying, coughing or making a bowel movement. If so, contact your pediatrician so they can take a look and determine if any treatment is needed.

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