Could that pain in your abdomen be a hernia? We tend to think of hernia largely as a male health problem, but it affects women, too.
A hernia forms when the lining of the abdominal cavity forms a sac that pokes through a hole or weak area in the tissue that surrounds muscles (the fascia). Anything that increases the pressure on the abdomen can potentially lead to a hernia.
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According to the National Library of Medicine, there are five common types of hernias, named for where they occur in the body:
- Femoral hernia: upper thigh
- Hiatal hernia: upper part of the stomach
- Incisional hernia: through a scar from surgery
- Inguinal hernia: groin
- Umbilical hernia: around the belly button.
How do you know that you’re actually suffering from a hernia and not something else? You’ll need to visit your health care provider to be sure, but many people experience some discomfort or pain. They may notice an area that’s bulging out or even getting bigger. Or if they’ve recently had surgery, they may see part of the incision starting to poke out.
But often such signs are dismissed in women because it’s assumed that hernias only affect men. Indeed the most common type of hernia, inguinal, which looks like a bulge in the groin, is nine times more common in men than women, says colorectal surgeon Dr. Meagan Costedio of the Cleveland Clinic.
“But they do still happen in women,” she says, adding that femoral hernias actually are more common in women than in men.
In general, the most significant risk factor for hernia is family history. (You’re also at a higher risk for subsequent hernias after your first.) But maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding smoking are also important for prevention.
“Smoking decreases the blood flow to the area and weakens the tissues,” says Costedio. Plus, the coughing that usually accompanies smoking can increase the abdominal pressure that exacerbates a hernia, and it can inhibit your body’s ability to heal.
Women can also experience a related condition called “prolapse.” This refers to the event that the support structure of the pelvic organs begins to weaken and break, causing a collapse. According to the Mayo Clinic, the types of prolapse include bladder prolapse (cystocele), rectal prolapse (rectocele), uterine prolapse, herniated small bowel (enterocele) and vaginal prolapse.
A common risk factor for this type of prolapse is pregnancy and vaginal delivery, both of which can lead to the weakening or even the tearing of the fascia, says Dr. Daniel Biller, a urogynecologist with Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A healthy premenopausal woman who still has normal estrogen levels can probably compensate for any damage that was caused for awhile, but as she ages and enters menopause, the condition tends to worsen.
Surgery is typically the only way to permanently treat hernia and prolapse, but mild cases may simply need to be monitored by your doctor.