Hernias can occur suddenly and without warning. Depending on the hernia's anatomical location as well as its cause, symptoms can range from asymptomatic to severe.
Mild forms of hernias may sometimes be asymptomatic due to the small size of the protrusion. These hernias usually do not disrupt normal body functions, and may not be revealed until a routine physical is performed. When discovered, they may be reducible by gently maneuvering the protruded tissue back into the body cavity under the instruction of a physician, without significant pain or discomfort. In very mild cases, hernias can even heal spontaneously. Due to a hernia's asymptomatic properties, an affected individual may not always realize that he or she even has a hernia. Therefore, it is important to see a doctor for regular checkups so that an asymptomatic hernia will not worsen into a chronic condition.
Mild, moderate and severe forms of hernia can become painful, and are often accompanied by specific symptoms unique to the anatomical site of occurrence. In cases of external hernias, such as inguinal (groin) and femoral (upper thigh) hernias, symptoms may be more grouped into a relatively focused area. Typical symptoms may include a physical bulge in the affected site that becomes more apparent to the eye when standing, or when pressure is exerted by the body. For example, coughing or straining during constipation may increase the size of the protrusion. Generally, when hernias cannot be reduced by pushing the protrusion back into the body, surgery may be required to repair the hernia. Discomfort at the hernia site, such as pelvic pain, as well as heaviness and abnormal swelling, are also common. There may also be sharp or dull pain during a bowel movement.
When incarcerated organs become intertwined with the contents of the hernia, symptoms may become more severe due to a decrease or complete deprivation of blood flow to the protrusion. Such a condition is also known as a "strangulated" hernia, and can commonly occur in the abdominal area when intestines become incarcerated. Such hernias are extremely painful and tender, and they can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever, inflammation, bowel obstruction and the appearance of blood in stool. The protrusion can also change in color, ranging from red, purple or dark pink. In this case, the attention of a medical doctor is imperative, so as to avoid gangrene, a life-threatening condition involving the death of the strangulated organs.
Symptoms for internal hernias can often be mistaken for that of other medical conditions, as they generally lack the physical signs of external hernias. For example, spinal hernias can have neurological symptoms such as sciatica, incontinence, problems walking, numbness, pain or tingling in the limbs. In diaphragmatic and hiatal (diaphragm) hernias, symptoms may be similar to that of acid reflux or heartburn, accompanied by chest pains and blood in stool. For internal hernias, symptoms may be more dispersed and harder to pinpoint compared to those of external hernias. It is best to see a doctor when symptoms occur so that he or she can eliminate other conditions unrelated to internal hernias.
Hernias can also affect infants and toddlers, and symptoms are usually less apparent than those of an adult. They are generally characterized by discomfort and abnormal protrusions that increase in size when the infant cries. It would be best to seek a doctor's opinion to correctly diagnose hernias in infants and toddlers.
If any of the above symptoms are present, then it is an indication that a hernia may be present. If there are suspecting bulges under the skin that increase in size when coughing or straining, then it may be a warning sign, and a medical opinion will be needed to confirm the presence of hernia. If there is recurring discomfort or pain at the same generalized location when lifting heavy objects or during strained bowel movements, urination or even coughing, then it may also be a warning indicator. Sometimes, long periods of standing up can trigger symptoms, due to gravitational pressure.
Individuals who had hernias before are also more susceptible to recurrences, so it would be wise to monitor the prior affected site for symptoms and to see a doctor as soon as possible upon the first sign of symptoms. Individuals who had recent abdominal surgery and had complications during the recovery time, or who have irregular bulges at the incision site, should be examined by a doctor for possible hernias. People who also had recent sports injuries should monitor the injury sites carefully for any potential symptoms. For men, abnormal bulges around the scrotum or inguinal ring may be warning signs of a potential inguinal hernia.
While over-the-counter pain medication can temporarily relieve symptoms, it is still important to see a licensed physician to confirm diagnosis. Hernias share symptoms with many other medical conditions that require completely different treatments, including appendicitis, pancreatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, gallstones and heartburns, to name a few. Untreated hernias can also lead to serious conditions that can be life-threatening, so do not wait to see a doctor upon the first warning signs or symptoms.