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What Is a Hiatal Hernia?

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Many have heard of a hiatal hernia, but may not understand the condition or what causes it. The diaphragm is the muscle separating the chest and abdominal cavities. In a normal diaphragm, the opening is large enough to allow only the esophagus to pass through it. When a hiatal hernia occurs, the opening increases and can allow the stomach and other organs to move from the abdomen into the chest.

What Are the Symptoms?

Patients may not notice symptoms when the hernia initially develops. Overtime, as the hernia enlarges and more of the stomach moves into the chest, patients might experience:

  • Pain in the chest or upper abdominal area
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Heartburn
  • Blood loss anemia

 In some cases, if the stomach slips into the chest, it can twist and cut off the blood supply to the organ and causing it to shut down. This occurrence produces symptoms that include severe pain, nausea and vomiting. Patients experiencing these symptoms should go to the emergency room immediately as this condition is life threatening.

It is important to note, not all hiatal hernias require surgery. If your hernia is small and you aren’t experiencing any symptoms, your doctor will monitor it for enlargement or onset of symptoms. Medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, are available that can control heartburn. Discuss the risks and benefits of medication options.

If the hernia is moderate to large in size and you are experiencing symptoms that are disruptive and increasingly difficult, surgery is an option to consider.