How to Avoid a Hernia – and How to Fix One if You Don’t

They come by the thousands each January. As the last phosphors of football season fade from their widescreens, legions of American men firmly put down their remotes, leap from their recliners, tog up in the sweats they just got for Christmas, and head down to the local gym to join the droogs for a bit o’ the old ultraviolent exercise. Pledging to restore their flab-enfolded bodies to (often imaginary) pre-holiday hardness, these grim new apostles of the weight room dutifully put in the recommended 20 minutes of warm-up time on the treadmill, then saunter over to the free weights for some manly iron-pumping.

For most of these amateur Apollos, the whole back-to-the-barbells New Year’s routine peters out around Mardi Gras time – but there’s always one guy who takes it too far. He straddles the bench, grabs the barbell handles in his manly paws, and, with a knowing wink at the cute coed on the exercise bike nearby, proceeds to press more weight overhead than should be allowed by law – and in so doing pops his abdominal wall open like a water balloon under a steamroller.

Welcome to the wide, wide world of hernia, sports fans.

Of course, there is nothing funny about hernia. Despite its goofy-sounding name and status as the subject of many old jokes, a hernia is a serious medical condition. Every year, people can and do die from the direct effects and complications from an untreated hernia. Serious surgery is required to repair a hernia, and even when successful, the surgery entails a substantial period of post-operative care.

Hernia is no laughing matter. But what is a hernia?

“Basically, a hernia is a bulge where a bulge shouldn’t be,” explains Dr. Jason Harrison, a general surgeon in Arlington, TX, who has performed hundreds of hernia repair surgeries.

The prime spot where hernias occur is in the lower abdomen, he explains, where the internal organs are held in place by the thick walls of abdominal muscle. These abdominal muscles are strong, but age, strain, and injury can weaken them. (Fun fact:  men are six times more likely to get hernias than women!) When one spot in the abdominal wall weakens enough, internal pressure can push internal organs and muscles outward through the weak spot, and bam: hernia.

The resulting searing pain is only part of the fun. Once internal tissues are bulging through the muscular wall (usually into the scrotum – ouch), pressure from the muscles can cut off their blood supply, causing them to atrophy or even become gangrenous – with predictably negative results. This kind of hernia is called the inguinal hernia.

And let’s not forget the jolly old hiatal hernia, when the upper part of the stomach pokes into the thorax through a rip or defect in the diaphragm. That’s even more fun.

Fortunately, hernias can be corrected by surgery, usually laparoscopically. Your surgeon will access the hernia via incisions in the abdominal wall, then push the bulging tissues back into place; finally, he or she will shore up the weak area (often with a plastic mesh) so that they don’t push loose again and close up the cuts.

And that’s it. Four to six weeks of recovery later, fellas, and you can hit the gym again – but this time, take it easy on the heavy lifting. Trying to prove to that cute coed on the stationary bike is only going to get somebody hurt.