A hole in the wall is not a good thing, unless it’s a window. But no one wants a window or any other kind of hole in the abdominal wall. When the abdominal wall, the thick layer of musculature across the abdomen, does develop a hole in the layers of muscle tissue, things that should stay in—fat, intestines—may begin to pop out, and that’s known as a hernia.

Before you become too horrified at mental images of one’s guts literally falling out, keep in mind that a hernia is a muscular defect, and the resulting protrusion of tissue occurs beneath the skin, sometimes causing a noticeable and uncomfortable bulge.

“Abdominal wall hernias come in all different shapes, sizes and causes,” says Dr. Lindy Hruska, a Mercy Clinic surgeon. “They can result from a physiologic weakness of the muscles of the abdominal wall, from previous abdominal surgery, or from heavy lifting, straining, coughing, weight gain and getting older.”

Although hernias may occur in various abdominal regions, they are most common at the belly button (umbilical) and groin (inguinal) or along surgical incision sites. Some people are born with a hernia, while others develop one later in life.

“Most hernias are not life-threatening, but there is a small percentage of hernias that can be dangerous if the intestine gets caught in the hernia and causes a blockage, or compromises the blood supply to the intestine. If this happens, it requires emergency surgery to repair,” Hruska says.

If a hernia causes pain or other complications, surgery is the only effective treatment. “Most hernia repairs will involve the use of mesh, which decreases recurrence or the chance the hernia will come back,” says Dr. Patrick Nero, a surgeon with SSM Medical Group. “Laparoscopic repair is a good option in many patients, especially for incisional or large umbilical hernias. Many surgeons continue to repair inguinal hernias through a small groin incision, though laparoscopy is an option here, as well. I customize the approach for each patient based on the specific characteristics of that individual and their hernia.”

During recovery, patients are restricted from lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds for at least two weeks. Gradually, the restriction is eased and the patient should have no long-term effects and be able to return to full activity. “Hernia repair is generally a very safe surgical procedure that can often be accomplished in the outpatient setting with excellent long-term results,” Nero says.

If you think you may have developed a hernia, close the window on pain and discomfort by seeing your physician to get a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan.

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