Hernia, Gastrointestinal

A hernia is the protrusion of tissue or part of an organ through an opening in the tissue that normally encloses and contains it.

What Is a Hernia?

The word hernia, in Latin, means “rupture.” A hernia refers to an opening, or separation, in the muscle, tissue, or membrane that normally holds an organ or other tissues in place. This opening allows the normally contained tissues or parts of an organ to poke through the hole. Hernias can occur in many areas of the body, including the brain, but they usually arise in the area of the body that is involved in digestion. These hernias are collectively known as gastrointestinal hernias, and they may result from muscular weakness, heavy lifting, straining, illness, obesity * , or pregnancy.

Gastrointestinal hernias come in several types:

Inguinal and femoral hernias

The wall of the abdomen is made of thick muscle, but it has normally occurring holes in certain places, such as the groin, that provide places for structures, such as blood vessels, to pass. Hernias usually develop when the intestines push out against these built-in weaknesses. Inguinal and femoral hernias are similar, but femoral hernias occur lower in the groin near the upper thigh.

Hernias may develop at different locations in the body, although an individual is unlikely to develop all four kinds of hernias shown here.

Hernias may develop at different locations in the body, although an individual is unlikely to develop all four kinds of hernias shown here. A hiatal hernia occurs when the stomach pokes above the diaphragm into the chest. An umbilical hernia occurs at the belly button (umbilicus) and is most commonly seen in infants. An inguinal hernia occurs in the groin, where the thigh meets the torso, and happens more often to men than to women. A femoral hernia occurs between the abdomen and the legs, and happens more often to women than to men.
Illustration by Frank Forney. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.
Hiatal hernias

Another common type of hernia is a hiatal hernia. The esophagus, or food pipe, passes to the stomach through a gap in the diaphragm * called the hiatus (hi--A-tus). A hiatal hernia occurs when the stomach pokes above the diaphragm into the chest. This type of hernia results in no visible bulge, but people may have other symptoms, such as heartburn. Hiatal hernias do not necessarily require surgery. Often, lifestyle changes such as losing weight, avoiding smoking, stopping alcohol consumption, and staying away from hot, spicy foods can make the symptoms go away.

Umbilical hernias

Umbilical hernias are common in children. About 10 percent of babies have one, although they are more frequent among babies of certain ethnic groups. This type of hernia usually heals by itself.

Ventral hernias

Ventral hernias happen when the intestine pokes through old scar tissue that has been stretched out, which may occur in people who are obese or in pregnant women.

Do Children Get Hernias?

Karen loved taking care of her baby brother. One day when she was changing his diaper, she noticed he had a plum-sized bump along the inside of his thigh where it met his torso (his groin). When he cried, it got bigger, like a small balloon being blown up. It looked pretty strange, but he did not seem to be in any pain. Karen's parents took him to the doctor, who said the baby had an inguinal hernia.

The doctor explained that up to 5 percent of healthy, full-term babies are born with inguinal hernias, and 80 to 90 percent of children with this type of hernia are boys. These hernias occur because certain openings do not close after birth the way they should, allowing the intestine to bulge out. The doctor scheduled an operation to surgically repair the baby's hernia and assured Karen's parents that the surgery was a safe and common procedure.

Are Hernias Dangerous?

In some cases, hernias can be dangerous if the protruding piece of intestine gets incarcerated (trapped) and strangulated (twisted). This condition can interfere with the flow of food and fluid through the intestine and sometimes stops the blood supply to that part of the intestine. When this happens, an individual will be in great pain and should immediately report to a hospital for emergency surgery. The trapped bit of intestine can develop infection or gangrene * , which if left untreated can be fatal.

See also Heartburn (Dyspepsia)


Books and Articles

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. “Learn to Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Hernia.” Lohud, June 8, 2015. http://www.lohud.com/story/sponsor-story/newyork-presbyterian-hospital/2015/06/08/signs-symptoms-hernia/27646245 (accessed June 11, 2016).


MedlinePlus. “Hernia.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000960.htm (accessed June 11, 2016).


British Hernia Centre. Lindo Wing, St. Mary's Hospital, Praed St., London, England, W2 1NY. Telephone: 44 20 8201 7000. Website: https://www.hernia.org (accessed June 22, 2016).

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 9000 Rockville Pk., Bethesda, MD 20892-2560. Telephone: 301-496-3583. Website: http://www.niddk.nih.gov (accessed March 28, 2016).

* obesity (o-BEE-suh-tee) is an excess of body fat. People are considered obese if they weigh more than 30 percent above what is healthy for their height.

* diaphragm (DY-uh-fram) is the muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities. It is the chief muscle used in breathing.

* gangrene (GANG-green) is the decay or death of living tissue caused by a lack of oxygen supply to the tissue or bacterial infection of the tissue.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)