What is a Ventral Hernia? Definition, Symptoms & Repair

Instructor: Mary Ellen Ellis
A ventral hernia can be a sudden, painful experience, or it can develop slowly over a longer period of time. Either way, if you have a ventral hernia, you have to get it fixed with surgery or it will only get worse.

When Your Intestines Protrude

It sounds like something from a horror movie, but when something starts bulging out of your abdomen, you may very well be dealing with a ventral hernia. This type of hernia occurs when a little bit of abdominal tissue or a part of an intestine pushes through a tear or weak spot in the abdominal muscle. Hernias can occur in other areas of the body, but the term ventral refers to the abdomen.

It should go without saying that you need to have your doctor check it out! Ventral hernias almost always require a surgical procedure to correct, but they are generally not immediately life threatening. A ventral hernia will not get better by itself, however, and left untreated it can cause even more damage.

A ventral hernia can occur anywhere on the abdomen and happens when an organ, most often an intestine, protrudes through a weak spot in the abdominal wall.

What Causes a Ventral Hernia?

There are several ways that ventral hernias can develop. Some people are born with a weak spot or hole in the abdominal wall, and hernias that develop this way are known as congenital hernias. The term congenital means having a defect since birth. These hernias can either take a long time to develop or they can be seen immediately, often around belly buttons in babies.

In other cases, ventral hernias may develop along a healed surgical incision that has weakened over time. These are generally referred to as incisional hernias. About a third of patients who have had surgeries go on to develop hernias at an incision site.

Other factors, such as age, medications, pregnancies, and injuries can cause ventral hernias as well. And sometimes there is no explanation for why a weak spot develops.

No matter what causes a weak spot in the abdominal wall, having one doesn't guarantee you'll get a hernia. Certain factors can increase the risk of developing one, however. The act of straining while lifting something heavy, while having a bowel movement, or while coughing can trigger a hernia. Being obese, smoking, or having poor nutrition are also risk factors.

What are the Symptoms of a Ventral Hernia?

In the early stages of a ventral hernia, you may not have any symptoms, but over time it will get worse. With a ventral hernia, you may see or feel a bump anywhere in your abdomen. It can appear and disappear as you move in different ways, sit up, lie down, or strain. If the tissue or intestine bulging through the abdominal wall pushes too far out or gets stuck, you will experience some more uncomfortable symptoms like pain, vomiting, nausea, and constipation. If the hernia develops suddenly because of straining, you will feel sudden, serious pain.

In rare instances, an intestine can become trapped in the abdominal wall and develop a strangulation. This happens when the blood supply to the trapped tissue or intestine gets cut off. In this situation, the strangulated tissue can quickly develop gangrene, erupt or die - which can lead to severe infections and death. Symptoms of strangulation include severe pain, nausea, sweating, vomiting, a rapid heartbeat, and a high fever. Strangulation is an emergency situation requiring immediate surgery.

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