What’s a hernia? All you need to know

Hernias can be brought on by coughing and sneezing. Picture: PA

Hernias can be brought on by coughing and sneezing. Picture: PA

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THEY’RE more likely to strike in colder months, but what else do you need to know about this common condition? Suzy Bennett pokes the experts

Who gets hernias? Well, Madonna has had one, weightlifters and builders get them, and US wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson famously tweeted about his.

But it’s not just people with physical lifestyles who suffer from hernias. We are all susceptible - and in winter, the risk is even higher. Our expert offers advice on how to avoid them, and what to do if you find one.

WHAT IS A HERNIA?

Hernias can appear as bulges on your body and are caused when an organ or tissue protrudes through a weak area of muscle or tissue that normally keeps it in place. Hernias most often develop in the abdomen, when the intestine bulges through the abdominal wall.

“It’s a design fault. The abdominal wall is nature’s corset which is holding everything in. If there’s too much pressure on it, it’ll give way,” says Mr Dudley Rogg, clinical director at the British Hernia Centre. “Hernia operations are the world’s most commonly performed surgical procedure - one in 10 of us will suffer from them,” he adds.

WHAT CAUSES THEM?

“Coughing and sneezing can cause hernias, which is why people often tend to get them in winter, when they are suffering from colds,” says Rogg. Repeated heavy lifting can also cause them, and they can also develop if you regularly have to strain during bowel movements. Being overweight can also be a factor.

A hernia can develop very gradually over a period of years, or it may come on suddenly, and they can develop at any age.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

The first thing you’ll notice is in the swelling in the abdomen. It may disappear when you lie down, and appear again if you cough, sneeze or strain on the toilet. “Most hernias don’t hurt at all, but sometimes you feel a dull ache or burning sensation,” says Mr Rogg.

A strangulated hernia, where a loop of bowel becomes trapped in the hernia defect, can be lethal and should be treated immediately.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I THINK I HAVE A HERNIA?

Hernias do not get better on their own, and tend to worsen over time, so if you think you might have one, see your doctor immediately. Most cases will be operated on as soon as possible after diagnosis.

WHAT’S THE TREATMENT?

The only way of curing a hernia is by surgery; there are no drugs for the condition. The traditional approach is to move the hernia and then stitch the weak portion of the abdominal wall back together, but as many as one in three patients have to return for repeat operations with this method.

The latest ‘mesh’ approach is normally carried out under local anaesthetic, with a piece of fine, sterile mesh placed at the weak point of the abdominal wall. “It takes minutes, is painless and [the hernia] never comes back,” notes Rogg.

Keyhole surgery might also be an option. Here, miniature surgical instruments - including a video camera - are inserted through a narrow incision to make the repair.

HOW CAN I HELP MYSELF?

You can prevent a hernia happening again by keeping your abdominal wall strong and healthy. Try to maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly to keep the abdominal muscles toned. Also, get medical help if you suffer from chronic constipation, allergies or a chronic cough, and eat high-fibre foods to keep your guts in good nick.

• For more information, visit www.hernia.org

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