What is an umbilical hernia?
Hernias develop when an internal part of the body pushes through a weak point of muscle or tissue. Most types of hernias develop in teens or adults. Umbilical hernias are more common in infants, and 20% of babies are born with one.
An umbilical hernia occurs near the belly button (umbilicus) when an intestinal loop pushes through the abdominal wall. They can look like an outie belly button. It’s estimated that about 10% of all abdominal hernias are umbilical hernias.
The main sign of an umbilical hernia is the appearance of a sac or pouch either in or around the belly button. In babies or infants, they usually don’t cause any pain. Adults may not feel any pain, but some do feel discomfort. Typically, umbilical hernias can get bigger when you:
Many babies who are born with umbilical hernias heal naturally within their first year of life. The hernia goes back in and the muscles seal, solving the problem with no medical intervention. In fact, 90% of children who are born with an umbilical hernia naturally heal by the time they are five years old.
Adults can also get these kinds of hernias. In adults, umbilical hernias can cause noticeable discomfort. The most common causes for umbilical hernias in adults include:
- Chronic cough
- Having had surgery previously on your belly
- Straining, like when lifting something heavy or pushing during pregnancy
- Repetitive vomiting
- Excessive belly fluid
- Being pregnant with more than one baby (twins, triplets, etc.)
Unlike umbilical hernias in babies, these hernias will probably grow bigger and become more uncomfortable as time goes on. They will not go away naturally and need medical treatment to repair them.
If left untreated, umbilical hernias can get stuck, which causes them to be even more painful. When umbilical hernias are stuck, or “incarcerated”, they can cause nausea, vomiting, and can even prevent you from being able to pass gas.
A strangulated umbilical hernia occurs when part of the intestine is in the hernia pouch and loses blood supply. This can cause vomiting and even sharper pain.
Diagnosis for an umbilical hernia
To diagnose an umbilical hernia, your doctor will give you a physical exam and ask about your full medical history. They will check for any swelling or a sac near your belly button, which is commonly the first sign of an umbilical hernia.
Your doctor will check to see if the hernia has become incarcerated or strangulated. If so, surgery is needed to repair the umbilical hernia. Some tests that your doctor may order to check on this include a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, X-ray, or ultrasound.
Treatments for an umbilical hernia
The only way to repair an umbilical hernia is through surgery. An umbilical hernia repair surgery helps to push the sac back into place and strengthen the abdominal wall. There are two types of surgery available to repair the hernia.
Open hernia repair
In this surgery, your doctor will make a small incision near your hernia and a surgical mesh is placed over the hernia site in the muscle. The mesh reinforces the area to help prevent the hernia from coming back.
Laparoscopic hernia repair
In either type of surgery, your doctor will ask you not to eat or drink during the six hours before your operation. You will be put under general anesthesia, and the procedure is usually finished in about 30 minutes.
For a simple umbilical hernia repair, you can most likely go home the same day as your surgery. However, you should take three to five days off of work to rest and let your body heal.
After your umbilical hernia repair surgery, your pain will be controlled by medication. You can most likely return to normal activity in about a month, but you should avoid anything strenuous for at least two weeks.
Possible risks and complications
As with any surgery, there are risks involved in umbilical hernia repair. However, complications occur in less than 10% of people who have umbilical hernia repair surgery. Some common complications include:
- Blood clots
- The hernia coming back
- Injury to the intestines
- Rupture of the wound
- Heart or lung problems
- The belly button looking different
There are also risks to not having surgery to repair your umbilical hernia. Without repair, your hernia can continue to grow and become more painful over time. The risk of the sac becoming incarcerated or strangulated goes up the longer your umbilical hernia goes untreated.
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Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Umbilical Hernia.”
Michigan Medicine: “Umbilical Hernia: Should I Have Surgery?”
Mount Sinai: “Umbilical Hernias.”
National Health Service: “Umbilical hernia repair.”