Lifestyle Choices can Reduce Hernia Risk Factors

Successful hernia treatment often involves more than just surgery. Patients can benefit from lifestyle changes both before and after a procedure to repair a hernia—changes that may also help prevent the hernia from recurring.

“We now understand, better than we used to, how important those broader lifestyle changes are to a good outcome,” said John Mellinger, MD. He and Jim Fullerton, MD, are co-medical directors of the Memorial Advanced Hernia Center.

What is a Hernia?

A hernia occurs when an organ or tissue squeezes through a weak spot in the surrounding muscle. They’re most common in the abdomen or groin and can frequently be treated with outpatient laparoscopic surgery. The Advanced Hernia Center uses a multidisciplinary approach and advanced surgical techniques to treat more complex cases, including larger hernias and hernias following prior procedures. This approach takes into account some broader health issues—particularly obesity and nicotine use—that put patients at greater risk.

Hernia Risk Factors

Smokers are more prone to develop hernias because fits of sudden, forceful “smoker’s cough” can cause strain in the abdomen. Meanwhile, carrying extra weight “puts a lot more pressure on the abdominal wall,” Dr. Fullerton said, noting that patients at the Advanced Hernia Center are often asked to lose weight and achieve a body mass index of less than 40 before surgery. Treatment may include nutrition counseling and treatment at the Memorial Weight Loss & Wellness Center.

Other risk factors for developing a hernia include “anything that makes you prone to strain frequently,” Dr. Mellinger said, including chronic constipation. Anyone who has had a prior abdominal surgery is at higher risk for hernias, since they can develop at the incision site.

There are also congenital factors at work. Drs. Fullerton and Mellinger said that many inguinal hernias—occurring in the groin—arise from weaknesses in the abdominal wall present at birth. Inguinal hernias are the most common type and happen far more often in men than in in women.

Hernia Recovery

Regardless of how or why a hernia forms, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking are still important, the physicians said. These broader lifestyle factors can affect how well a patient heals after surgery. Nicotine restricts blood flow and can increase wound infection rates, so smoking can impede the recovery process. Patients who resume smoking or who do not maintain a healthy weight after hernia treatment are also more likely to experience a recurrence.

Dr. Mellinger said some patients are motivated by their hernia experience to make long-term lifestyle changes that benefit their overall health: controlling their diabetes, losing weight or quitting smoking.

“Those are the really wonderful stories,” he said.