How do you know if you have a hernia?

You can’t always tell the exact moment you get a hernia. Many start out small, and they may not cause noticeable hernia symptoms. You may see or feel a slight bulge in your abdomen, groin, or upper thigh. But you may not. By the time you start wondering if you have a hernia, you may feel some light pulling or occasional twinges of pain near the hernia. For some, the bulge shows up before any feelings of pain or pressure in the area. For others, the hernia pain comes first.

It can be tempting to push through the discomfort from your hernia if you’re only experiencing mild symptoms. As the hernia grows, however, your pain may get worse. 

A hernia grows when more tissue starts pushing through your muscle wall. As your hernia gets bigger, you may start to feel pain every time you exercise, lift, bend over, go up or down stairs, stand for prolonged periods, strain during a bowel movement, cough, or even laugh. If the pain is bad enough, you may start trying to avoid activities that strain the muscles around your hernia. (This is around the point that many people realize just how often they use their abdominal muscles throughout the day.)

Hernia symptoms can be different for men and women.

Hernias are more common in men, but they can affect both sexes. However, hernia symptoms differ between men and women. Because of this, many hernias in women go undiagnosed. (Women account for only 8% of hernia diagnoses.) If your provider can’t see your hernia during a physical exam, they may recommend an abdominal ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan to get a better view of the muscles, fatty tissue, and organs in the affected area.

Hernia symptoms in men

For men, the most common hernia symptoms include a bulge that you can see or feel, pressure or tugging sensation, aches, and pain. Feelings of discomfort may get worse when you strain the muscles near that area, such as during heavy lifting or pushing. For a groin hernia, you may also notice pain or swelling around the testicles.

Hernia symptoms in women

Women are more likely to have an internal hernia that can’t be seen or felt through the skin. These internal hernias can pinch nerves, trap abdominal tissue, and cause severe pain. Women can have visible hernia bulges sometimes, too, though it’s more common in abdominal hernias than in groin hernias. 

Other hernia symptoms for women include aching, sharp pain, or burning in the area. The discomfort or pain will typically get worse or more noticeable during activities that strain the nearby muscles, such as heavy lifting, walking up and down stairs, coughing, and sex.

Hernia risk factors

Anyone can develop a hernia, but some people may be more at risk. For example, having abdominal surgery increases your chances of developing a hernia near your scar, called an incisional hernia. And women are more likely to develop umbilical hernias near the belly button, especially if they’re overweight or have been pregnant. Men, on the other hand, have a higher risk for groin hernias due to their anatomy.

Other health issues can be mistaken for a hernia.

Diagnosing a hernia can sometimes be tricky, especially if there’s no visible bulge. And, since hernias are more common in men, they’re often overlooked as a potential cause of pain in women. Hernias share some common symptoms with a few other health conditions, so be sure to tell your provider if you think you may have a hernia. 

Sometimes, hernias can be mistaken for:

  • Groin strains
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Scar tissue adhesions
  • Lipomas (non-cancerous fatty tumors)
  • Hematomas (bad bruises)
  • Appendicitis
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Endometriosis
  • Fibroids

Your provider should be able to work with you to figure out whether a hernia is the source of your pain or discomfort. If you’re unsure of your diagnosis or have additional questions, you always have the right to ask for a second opinion before moving forward with any treatment plan.

What should you do if you think you have a hernia?

You can check for a hernia by feeling for a bump under your skin in the affected area. However, some hernias don’t create obvious bulges, so it’s always best to get a potential hernia checked out. If you think you have a hernia, your first stop should be your primary care provider. Tell them about your symptoms, and they’ll refer you to a surgeon if they think you need hernia repair surgery

Hernias won’t go away without treatment, and they can grow over time, leading to more pain and potential complications. After examining your hernia, your provider can help you decide between getting hernia surgery or waiting and monitoring the hernia for changes. 

Since hernias can get worse if left untreated, it’s a good idea to schedule a visit to get yours checked out as soon as possible. Seek immediate medical care if you have any of the following symptoms. They could be signs of a strangulated hernia—a potentially life-threatening hernia complication.

  • A bulge that’s dark, red, or purple
  • Sudden sharp pain
  • Worsening pain
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Trouble passing gas or moving your bowels
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Fever

Breakdown: Signs you may have a hernia

Abdominal (ventral) and groin (inguinal) hernia symptoms:

    • Bulge on the abdomen or groin (not always visible)
    • Mild pain, pressure, or aching around the hernia
    • Worsened pain or discomfort when you strain your abdomen or groin, such as during:
    • Heavy lifting
    • Bending over
    • Running
    • Going up or down stairs
    • Coughing or laughing
    • Straining during a bowel movement
  • Additional hernia symptoms for men:
    • Pressure or tugging sensation near the groin or scrotum
  • Additional hernia symptoms for women:
    • Burning sensation near the hernia

What happens next?

If you found yourself nodding along as you read this post, you may now be wondering if there’s a chance your hernia will go away on its own. Unfortunately, that answer’s typically no, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need surgery right away. In our next hernia blog post, we break down when you need surgery to repair your hernia and what happens if a hernia’s left untreated. Check it out here: Can a hernia go away on its own?



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