Understanding Hiatal Hernias

understanding hiatal herniaA hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach pushes up through an opening in the diaphragm called the hiatus. The hiatus normally allows only the esophagus to pass into the stomach. However, if the supporting tissues surrounding the hiatus become weakened, part of the stomach may push up through the opening, creating a hiatal hernia.

Symptoms of a Hiatal Hernia

While some hiatal hernias do not produce symptoms and are not cause for concern, some hiatal hernias can become problematic and severe.

Some indications of a hiatal hernia are:

  • Heartburn
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Belching
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue

Because the heartburn or chest pain may feel similar to early symptoms of heart disease, it’s important to visit your doctor if you’re experiencing such pain.

Causes of Hiatal Hernias

Exact causes of hiatal hernias are not known, but being born with a large hiatal opening may contribute to developing a hiatal hernia.

Weakened diaphragm muscles also contribute to the development of a hiatal hernia, which may be due to increased and continuous pressure around the stomach area. Pressure may be caused by obesity, pregnancy, lifting heavy objects, bending over, coughing and straining during bowel movements.

People who are overweight or obese and over the age of 50 are most prone to developing hiatal hernias. They also occur more frequently in women than in men.

Treatments of Hiatal Hernias

Depending on the severity of symptoms, hiatal hernias may be managed through lifestyle changes, such as eating smaller meals and making dietary changes to avoid highly acidic foods.

Your doctor may also prescribe medications that:

  • Reduce acid production: known as H-2 receptor blockers, these include cimetidine (Tagamet HB), famotidine (Pepcid AC) and others
  • Neutralize acid: these include over-the-counter products like Gelusil, Rolaids and Tums
  • Block acid production and repair the esophagus: these proton pump inhibitors block acid production, giving the esophagus, which does not have a lining that protects it against stomach acid, time to heal

If you’re overweight, even modest weight loss may help alleviate the symptoms of a hiatal hernia. Ultimately, surgery is the only way to repair a hiatal hernia and prevent any further complications from developing.