What is an Inguinal Hernia? - Symptoms & Diagnosis

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
Inguinal hernias may be nothing serious to worry about, or they may be a medical emergency. Find out what they are, why they occur, what signs to look out for, and how they are diagnosed.

What is an Inguinal Hernia?

The inguinal canal is a structure in the lower abdominal wall. Although it functions differently in males and females, it is essentially a passageway between the abdominal wall and the genitals. In baby boys, for example, the testicles descend from the abdomen and into the scrotum via the inguinal canal.

Normally, the upper portion of this canal is sealed off soon after birth. However, sometimes it's not closed off, or a weak spot (or tear) develops in the area. When this happens, abdominal contents, like a loop of small intestine, can protrude through the inguinal canal and into the groin area. This is known as an inguinal hernia.

An inguinal hernia may not be anything to worry about and heal on its own. However, it may lead to life-threatening medical complications that require surgery, so it's important to know the symptoms in both cases.

Signs & Symptoms

If you have an inguinal hernia, you will notice a bulge on one or both sides of your groin, although the latter scenario is unusual. In males, abdominal contents may also descend into the scrotum and cause it to enlarge. Sometimes symptoms of an inguinal hernia are painless. In other cases, you may experience pain in the groin area when performing a strenuous activity, like lifting something heavy. Discomfort improves when you are at rest. Other symptoms can include a burning, aching, or dragging sensation in the area of a hernia, and weakness or pressure in your groin.

A hernia can often be gently manipulated back into the abdomen. In fact, the intestines might slide back and forth on their own. When this happens, you may notice that the bulge will increase in size when standing (due to gravity) and decrease in size when lying down.

In some cases, the inguinal hernia may cut off its own blood supply. This is a life-threatening emergency, and immediate medical care should be sought. Make sure to look out for any of the following signs and symptoms that may point to such a scenario:

  • Acute pain that intensifies quite rapidly
  • Fever
  • Discoloration (red or dark color) of the hernia
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas

Inguinal Hernia
Inguinal Hernia

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of an inguinal hernia is relatively straightforward. A doctor will conduct a physical exam to determine if an inguinal hernia is present or not. To determine this, the doctor may tell you to stand up and cough, causing the bulge of the hernia to increase in size and making it easier to see. Coughing increases the pressure within the abdomen, essentially squeezing out more of the abdominal contents through the inguinal canal.

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