Do you remember an instance when your toe poked through the worn fabric at the tip of your sock?
An inguinal hernia is similar — except the “sock” in this case is the layer of muscle across your abdomen, and the “toe” poking through is an internal organ or fat.
That might sound a bit unsettling, and the fact that you can often press the bulge back into place might make you squirm a little more.
An inguinal hernia isn’t usually a medical emergency. Treatment can depend on the hernia’s size, your symptoms and even your age. Hernias, however, do not heal by themselves and will continue to worsen if ignored, says Joseph Talarico, one of four general surgeons with Thompson Health.
What is an inguinal hernia?
Inguinal hernias occur when a section of intestine or abdominal fat pops through a weak area or tear in the abdominal wall. There are two types of inguinal hernias: direct and indirect.
An indirect inguinal hernia is caused by an abdominal wall defect that is present at birth. It happens more often in boys than girls. Premature infants are also more likely to be born with this type of hernia. Although rarely an emergency, an indirect inguinal hernia should be corrected through surgery as soon as possible.
A direct inguinal hernia usually occurs in adult men. It develops slowly after years of continuous pressure or stress on the abdominal wall.
The first sign of an inguinal hernia is usually a small bulge under the skin on one side of the groin. Other symptoms can include pain or pressure at the hernia site.
Risk factors and symptoms for an inguinal hernia include:
- Chronic constipation and straining during bowel movements
- Being older than 40
- Having a family history of hernia
- Being overweight
- Lifting heavy objects
Why see your doctor?
Inguinal hernias can grow larger over time, and that can lead to more serious problems.
Talarico says it’s important for persons with a hernia to visit a doctor once a hernia is symptomatic with pain, tenderness or swelling.
If a hernia is ignored, one serious condition that can occur is known as incarceration, in which the hernia gets trapped, or strangulated, and can’t be pushed back in.
“What was an easy operation now becomes an emergency,” Talarico says.
Hernia surgery is usually an out-patient procedure that involves three small incisions, Talarico explains. The patient spends approximately 35 minutes in the operating room, under anesthesia, and is able to return home the same day. Over-the-counter medications and icing are then typically used during recovery.