If you've ever finished a workout at the gym or lifted something heavy and suddenly felt pain in your groin area, you're likely one of the five million Americans who have an inguinal hernia.
A hernia occurs when the contents of a body cavity bulge out of the area where they are normally contained. There are various types of hernias, including femoral, incisional and umbilical; but inguinal hernias, which occur in the groin, are the most common, accounting for more than 70 percent of all cases. Inguinal hernias can occur in both men and women, however they're five times more likely to strike men. This is due to a natural anatomical weakness men have in their groin region.
The most obvious sign of a hernia is pain or discomfort that is relieved only by lying down, but swelling, heaviness or burning sensations may also occur. Often times, however, a hernia has no symptoms and can be a silent threat, which is why it's important to receive regular physical exams, especially if you're at increased risk.
"Inguinal hernias can occur for myriad reasons. Risk factors include any activity that puts pressure on the abdominal wall tissue and muscles, such as chronic coughing or overexertion. Being overweight, having an enlarged prostate, heavy lifting, smoking and poor nutrition also contribute to a person's risk. Undescended testicles can also raise the risk for hernias, which is why male newborns are particularly prone to hernias," explains Dr. Hugo Barrera, a general surgeon and vice chief of staff at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center.
Surgery is typically the only treatment for an inguinal hernia. Left untreated, strangulation, in which a loop of intestine becomes tightly trapped and cuts off blood supply, can occur. Hernia surgery can be performed traditionally (open) or laparoscopically, which involves several small incisions as opposed to one large one. Both have high success rates, but laparoscopic surgery offers the potential benefit of repairing hernias that may be present on both sides of the groin at the same time. In addition, laparoscopic hernia repair may result in faster recovery and less pain. And both are usually performed on an outpatient basis, allowing the patient to go home the same day.
During surgery, as described above, the weakened abdominal wall tissue is secured and closed with a surgical-grade cloth or mesh patch, which is helpful for strengthening the repaired tissue, as well as preventing a hernia from recurring. Typically, both open and laparoscopic hernia repairs take approximately one to two hours to perform.
Following surgery, most patients are back to normal within two to three weeks, and many return to work within the same week. The rate of recurrence is very low (about one to three percent).