Abdominal Wall Hernias

Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Hernia written for patients
A hernia is a protrusion of abdominal contents through the fascia of the abdominal wall.

Hernias always contain a portion of peritoneal sac and may contain viscera, usually small bowel and omentum.

  • When a hernia can no longer be reduced, it is irreducible or incarcerated.
  • This can occur at any time, as can strangulation when visceral contents of hernia become twisted or entrapped by narrow opening. This compromises the blood supply, causing swelling and eventually infarction.
  • Strangulation leads to bowel obstruction.

Abdominal wall hernias are named according to the position of the fault in the abdominal wall. The common types include:

  • Femoral hernias
  • Inguinal hernias
  • Incisional hernias
  • Epigastric hernias
  • Umbilical hernias

Femoral and inguinal hernias are covered in detail in separate articles.


  • The defect is seen approximately mid-line above the umbilicus in the linea alba.
  • Prevalence is estimated at 10%, accounting for between 1.6-3.6% of all abdominal hernias.[1]
  • Most common in men within the ages of 20-50 years.[1]
  • Multiple hernias may be present.
  • They are usually asymptomatic, but can present with epigastric pain varying from mild, to severe and penetrating. It may be accompanied by bloating, nausea and vomiting, often after meals.
  • Small hernias may be tender.
  • The hernia can be made to bulge by asking the patient to strain.


  • Obese patients may need ultrasound or CT scanning to confirm diagnosis.
  • They need to be differentiated from a diastasis recti, which is a widening of the linea alba without a defect in the fascia.
  • Surgical repair is essential, as there is a high risk that they will incarcerate or strangulate.
  • There is a 10-20% risk of recurrence after repair.[2]


  • Incisional hernia is a risk of any abdominal surgery and is estimated to occur in 15% of abdominal operations.[3]
  • They are caused essentially by failure of the wound to heal but are probably the result of multiple patient and technical factors.
  • Advances in technique and materials have not removed this problem.


  • They require urgent repair with reinforcing mesh used in large hernias. This is required particularly where the patient is obese.[4]
  • Recurrence occurs in up to 50% of large hernias.


  • Umbilical hernias comprise 10-30% of all hernias.[2]
  • They can be broadly categorised into the following groups:[2]
    • Congenital hernia (also called omphalocele) - can be further subdivided into fetal (occurring after eight weeks in utero) and embryonic (occurring before eight weeks in utero and may be associated with herniation of other abdominal cavity organs).
    • Infantile hernia - associated with prematurity; it usually spontaneously resolves.
    • Adult umbilical hernia - 90% of these are acquired - eg, in women they are associated with multiple pregnancies and difficult labour, but they are also found in cases of abdominal swelling - eg, ascites and obesity. They result in both high levels of mortality and morbidity.
  • Hernia gradually enlarges and may be multi-loculated.
  • Sac normally contains omentum ± bowel.
  • May present with pain on coughing or straining, or an ache or dragging sensation if large.


  • If <1 cm diameter, nearly always closes without treatment by age 5 years.
  • If >1.5 cm or in a child aged >4 years, usually requires repair.
  • Hernia is repaired surgically with preservation of the umbilicus, after removing causative factors such as ascites.
  • Spigelian: this is a hernia through the linea semilunaris muscle. Initially this causes localised pain exacerbated by straining and coughing, but the pain may become less localised and more an ache with time. Bulge can often be seen in the lower abdomen with the patient erect and straining. This can be reduced by pressure with a 'gurgling' noise and then the hernia orifice can often be felt. However, the defect may not be palpable or a bulge may be found distant from the site. This needs prompt repair.
  • Littre's: the hernia sac contains a Meckel's diverticulum. 50% are inguinal, 20% femoral, 20% umbilical and the remaining 10% are in miscellaneous locations - eg, ventral incisional hernia.
  • Lumbar or dorsal: these nearly always occur in the superior and inferior lumbar triangles. They present with a lump in the side with a heavy, pulling sensation.
  • Obturator canal: these occur mainly in elderly women and carry a mortality of up to 40%. They present with symptoms of small bowel obstruction. Usually they are only palpable on pelvic or rectal examination.
  • Perineal: these usually occur after perineal surgery and present with asymptomatic swelling.
  • Sciatic: these are very rare, with herniation through the greater sciatic foramen with incarceration or strangulation of the bowel.
  • Sportsman's: a debilitating condition which presents as chronic groin pain. A tear occurs at the external oblique, which may result in an occult hernia.[5]
  • Traumatic: these follow blunt trauma and present with pain, bruising and bulge.

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Original Author:
Dr Hayley Willacy
Current Version:
Dr Gurvinder Rull
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
1738 (v22)
Last Checked:
04 January 2013
Next Review:
03 January 2018

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