A hernia develops when fatty tissue or an organ pushes through a weak point in the surrounding muscle or connective tissue, causing a bulge under the skin. Hernias are very common, particularly over the age of 50, and they don’t always cause problems, in fact, you might not even know you have one.
Summer is a common time for people to develop a hernia and one of the reasons for this is that many of us tend to rush to the gym in a bid to get fit. Although exercising is good for overall fitness and can even be helpful in preventing hernias, you need to do it correctly, avoiding lifting anything that is too heavy or performing sudden movements that can cause muscle tearing.
Types of hernia
There are several different types of hernia including:
- Inguinal (inner groin) – Around 96% of all groin hernias are inguinal and the majority of these occur in men. In this type of hernia, the bladder or intestine pushes through the abdominal wall into the inguinal canal in the groin.
- Femoral (outer groin) – These occur most commonly in women, particularly if they are pregnant or obese. The intestine pushes through into the canal that carries the femoral artery into the upper thigh.
- Umbilical (belly button) – This type of hernia is common in newborn babies and it can also affect women who have had several children or who are obese. Part of the small intestine pushes through the abdominal wall near the belly button.
- Hiatal (upper stomach) – The upper part of the stomach squeezes through the hiatus, which is an opening in the diaphragm which the oesophagus passes through.
- Incisional (resulting from an incision) – If you have had abdominal surgery, particularly if you are elderly or obese and have been inactive following your surgery, you may be prone to this type of hernia. It occurs when part of the intestine pushes through the abdominal wall at the site of previous abdominal surgery.
Causes of hernias
Hernias are caused when there is a weak point in the muscle or fascia and something occurs to increase pressure in the abdomen. This might include:
- Lifting something heavy without first stabilising the abdominal muscles.
- A persistent cough or sneezing fit.
- Ongoing diarrhoea or constipation that causes straining.
Factors such as smoking, obesity and poor nutrition can make you more likely to develop a hernia.
Prevention of hernias
It is not possible to prevent every type of hernia, for example, if you have been born with muscle weakness or if your abdominal muscles are weakened due to surgery you can be at risk.
However, there are certain steps you can take to reduce your likelihood of developing other types of hernia. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy body weight, as being overweight or obese puts pressure on your abdominal wall due to extra body fat.
- Eating plenty of fibre can help prevent constipation, which causes straining and can increase the risk of hernia. You may also want to consider taking a fibre supplement or laxative to help you go to the toilet if you have chronic constipation. It is particularly important to avoid constipation after surgery as there is a risk of hernias at the incision site.
- Drinking plenty of water is important to keep your body hydrated and prevent constipation.
- Taking regular exercise is good for your health and fitness but avoid anything that puts too much strain on your abdomen, such as squats, jumps or fast movements that can cause muscle tearing. Good forms of exercise include pilates, yoga, cycling and running.
- Avoid heavy lifting and if you do need to lift heavy objects, lift correctly by bending at your knees rather than at your waist. This ensures that your legs rather than your abdomen do most of the work.
- Quit smoking as this can cause coughing.
If you have had abdominal surgery, it is particularly important to follow the recommendations above. You should avoid any activities that put pressure on the area of the wound and ensure you maintain a healthy body weight.
Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.