A hernia is an abnormal opening in the wall of a tissue, muscle or membrane that holds an organ in place. The stomach lies below the diaphragm. Hiatal hernia is a condition in which part of the stomach slides through the hiatus, an opening in the diaphragm, and protrudes into the chest. Hiatal hernia is a common condition and commonly affects people over 50 years of age.
Hiatal hernia is of two types:
- Sliding hiatal hernia: Most common type of hiatal hernia where the stomach slides in and out of the hiatus.
- Fixed hiatal hernia (Paraesophageal hernia): The stomach moves up into the chest cavity and stays.
Sometimes the hernia may get strangulated, blocking the blood flow to the stomach. This is a medical emergency.
It is not exactly clear what causes a hiatal hernia. Some of the possible causes may include weakening of the supporting tissues due to an injury, or increased pressure in the abdomen from coughing, vomiting, lifting heavy objects and straining during a bowel movement. The condition may also occur due to a congenital defect where the hiatus is unusually large.
The diaphragm is the muscular sheet that separates the lungs and chest from the abdomen and helps in breathing. The oesophagus or food pipe passes through the diaphragm at the hiatus and opens into the stomach, which is present below the diaphragm.
Hiatal hernia may not have any symptoms. Some of the commonly observed symptoms of hiatal hernia include chest pain, heart burn, belching and difficulty swallowing.
Your doctor may order the following tests to diagnose hiatal hernia:
- Barium swallow test: involves swallowing a barium preparation, which can be detected through X-rays
- Endoscopy: allows the doctor to examine the inside of your oesophagus and stomach with an instrument called an endoscope, a thin flexible lighted tube
Treatment may not be necessary if the patient is not experiencing symptoms. Treatment is usually started when symptoms occur such as in cases of severe heartburn, when the oesophagus gets inflamed due to acid reflux, the hiatus narrows or lungs are inflamed. Your doctor prescribes medications and life style changes to treat heartburn and acid reflux.
Surgery is recommended if medications do not work, although it is rare. A hernia repair surgery is usually performed as an open or keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery, where the bulge is pushed back into place, the hiatus is tightened and the stomach is secured into place with sutures.
Laparoscopic Nissen fundoplication (LNF) is considered the standard of care for hiatal hernia.
Nissen Fundoplication is performed on an outpatient basis under general anesthesia. Your surgeon makes a small incision in the upper abdomen and inserts a tube called a trocar through which the laparoscope is introduced into the abdomen. A harmless gas is injected into the abdominal cavity near the belly button to expand the viewing area of the abdomen, providing a clear view to your surgeon and sufficient room to work. Additional small incisions may be made to insert other surgical instruments.
During the procedure, your surgeon first repairs the hiatal hernia, by bringing your stomach down into your abdominal cavity. Sometimes, a type of mesh may be inserted to support and strengthen it. Your surgeon then wraps the upper part of the stomach, the fundus, around the lower esophagus to create a valve, suturing it in place. This surgery strengthens the muscles and helps prevent stomach acid and food from flowing back into the oesophagus. The laparoscope and other instruments are removed and the gas released. The tiny incisions are closed and covered with small bandages.
You may feel soreness around the incision areas. Your surgeon may prescribe pain medicine or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for the first few days to keep you comfortable. If the abdomen was distended with gas, you may experience discomfort in the abdomen, chest, or shoulder area for a couple days while the excess gas is being absorbed.
Contact your doctor immediately if you have a fever, chills, increased pain, bleeding or fluid leakage from the incisions, chest pain, shortness of breath, leg pain or dizziness.