You're lifting a heavy box, when suddenly, you feel a strain in your stomach or groin. If you also feel a bulge there, you might have a hernia.
The bump that you feel is a part of what's in your abdomen bulging out through a weak spot in the muscle or tissue that surrounds it. A hernia is kind of like pushing your finger against the side of a balloon.
What type of hernia you have depends on where the bulge is located. A femoral hernia is a bulge in the upper part of your thigh. A hiatal hernia is located in the top part of your stomach. An umbilical hernia bulges around your belly button. Inguinal hernias are in the groin area. And incisional hernias usually form around a scar from a past surgery in your abdomen.
You can get a hernia if you lift something that's too heavy, or strain too hard while coughing, urinating, or having a bowel movement. Sometimes babies are born with a hernia. That happens when the lining that is supposed to hold the abdominal organs doesn't totally close before birth.
Some hernias don't cause any symptoms. You might live with a hernia for a while without even noticing that you have it. Or, you may see an actual bulge in your leg, stomach, or groin. Hernias can sometimes be painful, especially when you strain or lift something heavy. Your doctor should be able to locate the hernia during an exam.
If your hernia is small and doesn't bother you, you may not need to do anything but keep in touch with your doctor to make sure it isn't growing. If the hernia is big or painful, your doctor may recommend surgery to plug the opening.
The one big risk to having a hernia is that with some types the tissue can get caught inside the hole. This is called strangulation. It can be very dangerous, because blood is cut off to the part of the organ that's trapped. Eventually that tissue will die. If you have a strangulated hernia, you'll need to have emergency surgery.
Surgery is the only way to reverse a hernia, although in young children umbilical hernias will often go away on their own. If you have a small hernia and decide not to have surgery, be on the lookout for any changes. Call the doctor right away if you have pain, nausea, vomiting, or a fever, or if your hernia turns red, purple, or another color. These could be signs of strangulation. To avoid a hernia in the first place, be careful when lifting heavy objects. Drink plenty of fluids and add fiber to your diet so you won't have to push too hard on the toilet. And see a urologist if you're straining while urinating.
Review Date: 2/18/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.