A hiatal hernia happens when an abdominal organ, most often the stomach, slides up into the chest through an opening in the diaphragm muscle.
This common type of hernia has a number of different causes. It can happen due to body size, tight clothing, or pregnancy. It can also occur due to a weakening of the diaphragm muscle.
Most hiatal hernias don’t cause symptoms and don’t need treatment. Medications can help if the hernia causes gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms. Surgical repair is only necessary in rare cases.
A hiatal hernia occurs when abdominal contents slide through a hole in the diaphragm muscle and up into the chest. It usually involves a part of the stomach. In rare cases, some other part of the intestine — or even the spleen or pancreas — can move into the chest.
Hiatal hernias are common, affecting up to 20% of people. The condition is usually harmless, and most people don’t have any symptoms. But there are some scenarios where people need treatment. Here we’ll discuss what causes a hiatal hernia, as well as the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of this type of hernia.
The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Normally the esophagus is the only part of the digestive tract that travels through the diaphragm. But sometimes organs that belong in the abdomen — like the stomach — can slide up through the hole in the diaphragm. Anything that increases the pressure in the abdomen can cause this, such as:
Large body size
Heavy lifting or straining
Tight-fitting clothing or belts
Weakening of the diaphragm muscle can also make someone more likely to develop a hiatal hernia. This can happen due to the following:
Condition present at birth
Injury to the diaphragm muscle
Burning discomfort in the chest or upper abdomen
Acidic taste in the mouth
When someone has these symptoms, they tend to be worse after eating. Other triggers include certain foods, large meals, or lying down after eating.
In rare cases, the pain can be very severe if the portion of the stomach or intestine that slides through the diaphragm gets stuck or trapped. This cuts off the oxygen supply to that part of the digestive tract, leading to a sudden onset of symptoms like pain or vomiting.
Since most hiatal hernias don’t cause symptoms, diagnosis often comes from a test that’s done for some other reason, like an X-ray or CT scan of the chest. If the hernia is causing symptoms, a provider may recommend an endoscopy, which can also help with the diagnosis.
After a diagnosis, your provider may recommend additional testing to get more information about the extent of the hernia. This is especially true if the hernia causes severe symptoms and you’re considering surgery. More extensive testing includes:
Barium swallow: This test is a special type of X-ray where you first drink a liquid that contains barium. The barium coats and outlines the esophagus and stomach, which can better show the hernia.
Esophageal manometry: A provider places a probe in the esophagus to see how it contracts during swallowing. Normal esophageal function is important if the hiatal hernia needs surgery.
Reflux monitoring: A provider places a probe into the esophagus for a period of time to monitor the pH and check for the presence and severity of GERD. A hernia that causes severe GERD may benefit from surgery.
Most hiatal hernias don’t need treatment unless they cause symptoms. Even if the hernia causes symptoms, the first treatment is usually medications that help with GERD. Acid-blocking medications called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) can help with the symptoms. Providers usually recommend PPIs for at least 8 weeks. If the medication helps, you’ll usually continue to take them at the lowest dose that controls the symptoms.
To help control any symptoms, experts also recommend lifestyle changes, such as:
Addressing weight loss if appropriate
Avoiding trigger foods for GERD symptoms (like spicy or acidic foods)
Eating smaller, more frequent meals
Avoiding tight-fitting clothing
Waiting at least 1 hour after eating before lying down
Raising the head of the bed to help avoid reflux while sleeping
If lifestyle changes and medications aren’t enough to control the symptoms, you and your provider may consider surgery to help fix the hernia. A surgeon will also repair a hiatal hernia if someone has weight-loss surgery. This includes procedures like gastric bypass and gastric sleeve. In some cases, healthcare teams may consider surgery earlier if there’s a high risk that the hernia will become entrapped.
Most hiatal hernias aren’t dangerous. But if the hernia is at high risk of becoming stuck or entrapped, it may cause hernia incarceration, a serious, life-threatening complication. This is when the oxygen to a portion of the intestine is cut off, which causes that part of the intestine to die. It can happen due to the size or shape of a hiatal hernia.
Hernia incarceration is an emergency that needs immediate treatment. It’s associated with severe and worsening pain, fever, and possible infection. But this is a very rare complication of a hiatal hernia. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out if your hiatal hernia is at high risk of this complication.
A hiatal hernia is a common condition. Many people don’t have any symptoms, so imaging tests done for some other reason often identify them. If you have symptoms, they’re usually related to GERD. Treatment for symptoms include acid-blocking medications or surgery, if necessary. Luckily, most hiatal hernias don’t cause any serious problems and don’t need surgical repair.
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