A doctor greets a patient in this photo.

Do you have a bulge in your stomach that sometimes hurts, but disappears when lying down? You may have a hernia.

Hernias are fairly common. They nearly always need treatment, but they are very treatable. In fact, they are one of the most common surgeries.

We see all types of hernias at the Comprehensive Hernia Center. Let’s learn a bit more about what a hernia is and some hernia causes.

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What is a Hernia?

Hernias are most common in the stomach or groin. You have walls of muscle in these areas. When tissue from an organ pushes through a wall of muscle, it’s called a hernia.

You may feel a soft lump where a hernia has formed. Sometimes, you can push a hernia back in. If you cough, lift something heavy or bend over, it may be painful.

There are different types of hernias. The most common is an inguinal hernia. About 27% of men and 3% of women will have an inguinal hernia at some point.

While hernias can sometimes become life-threatening, the problem is usually that they are uncomfortable. Without treatment, they can grow larger and become more painful.

What Causes Hernias?

You may get a hernia for several different reasons.

  • Weak stomach muscles and connective tissue: Because of genetics, some people are born with weaker connective tissue. In fact, some connective tissue disorders increase your risk for hernia.
  • Age, illness, or surgery: Your stomach muscles can also get weaker with age or because of something that happens, like surgery.
  • Pregnancy: Being pregnant can cause your abdominal muscles to stretch and weaken. (If you do develop a hernia during pregnancy, your doctor will wait to treat it until after you deliver.)
  • Excessive coughing or straining: If you have a chronic cough or constipation, the straining puts pressure on the muscle walls. This may be linked to how a hernia forms.
  • Lifting heavy objects: We know that lifting heavy things can make a hernia worse. Researchers are trying to learn if these activities can cause a hernia to begin with.

Also, different types of hernias have slightly different risk factors.

For example, a hernia can form at the site of an incision (an incisional hernia). People who smoke or have diabetes are at risk for an incisional hernia after surgery. This is because their body has a harder time healing wounds.

Be careful not to confuse a core muscle injury, often called a sports hernia, with an actual hernia. They are caused by different things.

What Are the Symptoms of a Hernia?

You can usually feel a hernia, and you may be able to see the bulge as well. Seeing and feeling the hernia may be the only ways you know you have one. You might feel pain or pressure around the bulging area, especially when tensing the muscles or straining.

A hernia is often painful and may interfere with your daily activities. If you suspect you have one, it’s a good idea to schedule a visit with a doctor. They are highly treatable.

More rarely, hernias can cause bowel obstructions. They can also become pinched — a very serious condition where the blood flow to the hernia is cut off. If you can feel your hernia and you have any of these symptoms, seek emergency care:

  • Severe pain in the area (where the pain was only mild before).
  • Vomiting and/or nausea, often with pain in the hernia area.
  • Trouble with bowel movements, usually with pain and vomiting.
  • Skin changes around the hernia (if it looks suddenly thin or stretched).

Can You Prevent Hernias?

You can’t control genetic factors like weak connective tissue or aging. Even gender is a factor since men are almost 10 times more likely than women to develop inguinal hernias. The bottom line is that you may not be able to prevent some types of hernias.

With other types of hernias, there are prevention strategies. For example, you can lower your risk for incisional hernias after surgery by:

  • Avoiding straining or heavy lifting as your incision heals.
  • Stopping smoking, if you’re a smoker, to help surgical wounds heal properly.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Keeping your diabetes under control.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.