Healthbeat Report: Hidden Hernias

April 5, 2012 8:30:42 PM PDT
It is a condition many people assume is for men only. But hernias plague women too.

The signs are less obvious, and their symptoms can mirror other pelvic problems, resulting in the wrong diagnosis.

Terry Angone knows how to push through pain. The Chicago Police officer didn't let back trouble and surgery slow her down. So the odd pelvic pain that had been coming and going over the past 15 years wasn't a huge concern. She assumed it had something to do with her monthly cycle.

"Could be very extreme pain that would come on quite suddenly, and I was able to control it by taking 3-4 Motrin and riding it out," Angone said.

But recently this active 52-year-old noticed an alarming change on the lower left side of her abdomen.

"It was to the point you could actually see it bulging out," said Angone. "So I knew something was going on."

Angone got lucky. Her OB-GYN figured out almost immediately that she had a hernia.

Many other women are not as fortunate.

"My husband had hernia surgery. It never crossed my mind," Angone said.

Rush surgeon Jonathan Myers repairs a lot of hernias, and he knows the condition is easily overlooked in women.

"They might have been through several doctors by the time they get to see me to determine what is the cause of their pain," Myers said.

One reason is that the condition is more common in men and generally thought of as a guy's problem.

A hernia happens when an internal organ or fatty tissue pokes through a weakness in the muscle wall.

There are many different types of hernias. They can show up around the belly button and at the site of an older incision. But the most common place for them to appear is the abdomen.

In women they are more likely to be internal.

"Groin hernias in women are more difficult diagnose because many times they don't have a characteristic bulge that a man would have," said Myers.

Without visual symptoms hernias can be missed during exams. They may not even show up on scans.

Sometimes the first symptoms are abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. They may hit when you are lifting something or even sitting for a long period of time.

So, when a women complains of pelvic pain, experts say it can be misdiagnosed as other things like a muscle strain or a gynecological problem such as endometriosis or fibroids.

Hernias can be repaired with surgery, and many are now fixed using a special mesh patch.

Angone had the surgery about four weeks ago, and she is already back to working out.

Dr. Myers said he is seeing an increase in hernias as more people are becoming obese. He stresses that women with pelvic pain need to be tenacious in seeking the right diagnosis and cure.

Hernias can grow and usually don't do away on their own. In rare cases they can become dangerous.