The main sign of an abdominal hernia is having a bulge or swelling appear on a part of your abdomen. Often, the bulge will disappear when you lie down or push on it and then reappear when you stand, cough or sneeze. This is called a reducible hernia.
You may also have symptoms such as burning, slight discomfort and a feeling of heaviness or aching in your abdomen. When you strain or lift something, you may have a sharp pain.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP will examine the bulge or swelling. This may be when you're standing up or lying down. He or she will check if the bulge can be pushed back in, and may ask you to cough while placing a finger over the hernia to see if there is a change in the swelling. Your GP may also refer you for an ultrasound scan to confirm a diagnosis.
Umbilical hernias in young children usually get better on their own as the abdominal muscles get stronger. However, most abdominal hernias generally get larger with time and don't go away without treatment. Surgical repair is usually recommended in adults.
An abdominal hernia repair operation involves pushing the hernia back into your abdomen and repairing the weakened muscle. This can be done as a keyhole procedure (where the operation is done through small cuts in your lower abdomen) or open surgery (where a single, larger cut is made).
Anything that increases the pressure in your abdomen can cause an abdominal hernia, including:
- coughing or sneezing
- straining on the toilet (for example, if you have constipation)
- lifting heavy objects (for example, weight training)
- being overweight
The risk of having an abdominal hernia increases with age because the older you get, the weaker your abdominal wall muscles become.
If the hernia grows and becomes impossible to push back in, it’s called an incarcerated hernia. When this happens, there is a risk that the blood supply to the protruding gut may be cut off. This is then called a strangulated hernia, which is a serious complication that requires urgent surgery.
It’s vital that you get medical help immediately when you have a hernia and it becomes incarcerated, especially if:
- the affected area is very painful, tender and red
- you feel weak and faint with pale, clammy skin and a fast heart rate
- you feel sick or vomit
The only way to prevent having an abdominal hernia is to limit the problems that make it more likely. Some examples are listed below.
- Recurrent coughing or sneezing. Find out what is causing your symptoms and get help to treat them.
- Straining on the toilet. To help ease your bowel movement, eat enough fruit and vegetables and increase your fibre intake. Also make sure you drink enough fluids.
- Being overweight. Try to maintain a healthy weight and if you're overweight seek help to lose any excess weight.
- Lifting heavy objects. Make sure you use a correct lifting technique and if possible try to find ways to reduce heavy lifting.
If you’re a woman and are pregnant, it may be helpful to wear a support belt to ease the pressure on your abdominal muscles. Speak to your GP or obstetrician (a doctor who specialises in pregnancy and childbirth) for more information.
Are there any other symptoms of an abdominal hernia apart from having a bulge?
If you have any type of abdominal hernia, as well as having a bulge, you might also have a dragging or aching feeling in the area. This may get worse when you're physically active.
Abdominal hernias can sometimes be very small and difficult to diagnose, particularly in people who are overweight. If you suspect you have a hernia but don’t notice a bulge, you may have other symptoms, such as a dragging or aching feeling in your abdomen (tummy).
You will have more obvious symptoms if the hernia becomes strangulated (when the blood supply to your gut becomes cut off). Because you can develop complications even from small hernias, it’s important to seek medical help immediately if:
- the affected area is very painful and tender
- you feel weak and faint with pale, clammy skin and a fast heart rate
- you feel sick or vomit
If the hernia is strangulated, you will need to have surgery urgently.
What can I do to prevent another hernia from happening in the future?
There is no sure way of preventing another hernia but you can take steps to reduce the chances of it happening again. These include managing factors that may put a strain on your abdominal muscles.
After having a hernia, you're at an increased risk of having another. The likelihood of this happening will depend on the type and size of the initial hernia, your general health, weight and lifestyle.
Your general health
A chronic cough, violent sneezing or constipation can increase your risk of having another hernia. Some self-help measures to ease these problems are listed below.
- If you smoke, stopping can help to improve your cough. If you have a persistent cough for any other reason, talk to your GP or pharmacist for advice about treatments that can help to ease the problem.
- If you have hay fever, you can be affected by violent sneezing. Talk to your GP or pharmacist about effective treatments for hay fever to control your symptoms.
- Eating a healthy balanced diet with enough fruit, vegetables and fibre, and drinking enough fluids can help prevent constipation.
Being overweight can put a strain on your abdominal muscles, so it’s important to maintain a healthy weight.
Any physical activity that involves straining your abdominal muscles can increase your risk of getting another hernia. If your job involves heavy lifting, it’s important to look at ways to reduce or not do this type of activity.
Regular exercise is good for your general health and wellbeing; however strenuous activity can put pressure on your abdominal muscles. If you have had a hernia before, talk to your GP for advice before starting a new physical activity.
Will I need to have surgery for an abdominal hernia?
Apart from umbilical hernias in small children, abdominal hernias don’t usually go away by themselves and tend to get bigger slowly over time. You are therefore likely to need surgery.
Most people will eventually need to have surgery for an abdominal hernia, but how soon you need to have the operation may depend on how severe your hernia is and your individual circumstances. Your surgeon will be able to advise you about your options and the right type of surgery for you.
- Core Charity
- Hernias. Core Charity. www.corecharity.org.uk, accessed 28 November 2011
- Scrotal swellings – inguinal hernia. Prodigy. www.prodigy.clarity.co.uk, published February 2010
- Simons MP, Aufenacker T, Bay-Nielsen M, et al. European Hernia Society guidelines on the treatment of inguinal hernia in adult patients. Hernia 2009; 13(4):343–403. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- Inguinal hernia. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing house (NDDIC). www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov, published December 2008
- Hair A, Paterson C, O'Dwyer PJ. Diagnosis of a femoral hernia in the elective setting. J R Coll Surg Edinb 2001; 46:117–18. www.rcsed.ac.uk
- Forbes SS, Eskicioglu C, McLeod RS, et al. A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials comparing open and laparoscopic ventral and incisional hernia repairs with mesh. Br J Surg 2009; 96: 851–58
- Surgical repair of incisional hernias – SSAT patient care guidelines. The Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract. www.ssat.com, accessed 28 November 2011
- Laparoscopic surgery for hernia. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2011. www.nice.org.uk
- Personal communication, Mr Bruce Tulloh, General Surgeon, Spire Murrayfield Hospital Edinburgh, 11 January 2012
- Core Charity
About our health information
At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.
Information StandardWe are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
HONcodeWe comply with the HONcode for trustworthy health information: verify here
Plain English CampaignWe hold the Crystal Mark, which is the seal of approval from the Plain English Campaign for clear and concise information.
Our core principles
All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.
In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.
We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.
We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.
Don’t just take our word for it. Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.
The Information Standard certification scheme
You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.
It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.
Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information.
We comply with the HONcode (Health on the Net) for trustworthy health information. Certified by the HONcode for trustworthy health information.
Plain English Campaign
Our website is approved by the Plain English Campaign and carries their Crystal Mark for clear information. In 2010, we won the award for best website.
Website approved by Plain English Campaign.
British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards
We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.
If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: email@example.com. Or you can write to us:
Health Content Team
15-19 Bloomsbury Way