What is a Hiatal Hernia?
A hiatal hernia occurs when part of your upper stomach bulges out through an opening in your diaphragm. Here’s what you need to know about this condition.
Causes and Risk Factors
Most often, a hiatal hernia is caused by an increase in pressure in the abdominal cavity. This cavity is in the middle of your body and holds many vital organs like your kidneys, liver, and small intestine. Pressure can come from a few things, including physical strain, coughing, vomiting, or strain during a bowel movement. In any case, the pressure causes the stomach to push through the diaphragm in your upper abdomen, causing a hiatal hernia.
People at risk for this include overweight people, smokers, and people over 50. Additionally, some pregnant women develop this condition. However, anyone at any age can develop a hiatal hernia.
Hiatal Hernia Symptoms
It’s fairly common for people with a hiatal hernia to experience no symptoms at all. In many cases, you may not know you have one until your doctor finds one during an exam or procedure for another purpose. This is often the case for smaller hernias that don’t cause issues in your body. However, larger hernias may impede certain functions and are more likely to lead to symptoms. For those who do experience symptoms, some of the most common are GERD-like symptoms including heartburn, regurgitation, acid reflux, and pain in the esophagus. This is because the hernia can allow food and acid to back up into your esophagus. Some other symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling full soon after eating, vomiting blood, or passing black stools.
Diagnosing a Hiatal Hernia
Doctors diagnose hiatal hernias in a few different ways. They may perform an upper endoscopy to visualize your upper digestive tract and identify any signs of the hernia. Another test they use is called a barium swallow test. Here, you drink a special liquid that coats your digestive tract, which doctors then visualize by taking an x-ray. They can also use esophageal manometry to measure the strength and coordination of your esophagus.
Complications and Treatment
In the majority of cases, hiatal hernias don’t cause any issues and thus don’t require treatment. If you have GERD-like symptoms, doctors will likely use treatment methods used to manage GERD itself. They may recommend lifestyle changes like decreased portion sizes, losing weight, limiting acidic foods, quitting smoking, and eating well before you lie down to sleep at night. They may also recommend over the counter antacids to neutralize stomach acid, or medications that reduce acid production.
In some cases, if these treatment methods do not improve your situation or if a hernia is severely constricting your esophagus, you may need surgery. In this procedure, doctors pull your stomach down into your abdomen and improve the valve at the bottom of your esophagus. This provides a long-term solution which prevents food and acid from backing up into your esophagus.
Our experienced team at GHP has years of experience treating patients with conditions like hiatal hernias. We can help establish the best plan of care for your situation. Contact any of our office locations to learn about the options we offer and schedule an appointment today.