What is an Umbilical Hernia?

The simplest description of an umbilical hernia is a bulge that you see affecting the navel or the area immediately surrounding it. From the naked eye, the hernia would seem like the tail-end of some internal balloon trying to emerge from the inside of the body. Due to its appearance, it often makes people with the condition (especially children) the target of jokes or ridicule from their peers. This should not be so—while hernias are not necessarily painful, they still pose a certain degree of medical risk. And children or babies afflicted with it deserve all the care and attention they need.

Statistically speaking, umbilical hernias are not exactly “rare.” About 15 to 20 percent of all babies born are affected by it. There is also a widely observed racial propensity—African-Americans are eight times more likely to have it than Caucasians or Hispanics. And although it is not actually genetic in the sense that it could directly be passed on from parent to offspring, it does tend to run in families—if any of your relatives has or develops an umbilical hernia, chances are, anyone else in your clan may also develop it in adulthood or born with it.

While infants are most often susceptible to develop an umbilical hernia during the process of child birth, adults can also develop it at any point in their lives. In adults, umbilical hernias can be easily caused by intense coughing, especially if one’s abdominal muscles are weak in the first place. Sometimes, with no clear reason, babies are born with their umbilical cord refusing to close like they normally should. Often, people have no recourse but to deal with the hernia through medical management or surgery.

The two different types of umbilical hernias

As we’ve mentioned, umbilical hernias can develop in babies and adults. Medically speaking, such hernias would be described as “congenital” and “acquired,” respectively. It is important to note that this type of hernia does not develop while the fetus is still inside the womb. Instead, the hernia only happens right in that crucial moment when the baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut. For some little understood reason, the cord (or specifically, the muscles that consist the umbilical cord) suddenly decides to defy the doctors’ and parents’ expectations and refuse to close up. And through this irrepressible opening that part of the intestines or some fatty tissue pokes out.

The good thing about congenital hernias (if one could be allowed to look at the silver lining) is that usually, without even requiring any surgery, the umbilical hernia would resolve on its own. It would shrink and close up in a few years: by the time the child is four years old, the erstwhile “breathtaking” umbilical hernia would be nothing but a normal-looking navel.

On the other hand, there is also acquired umbilical hernia. This is the type that develops at some point during adulthood. It is very possible that you go through most of your life healthy and without any medical problem, yet the hernia can still suddenly appear when you least expect it. Mothers who have had several pregnancies are prone to umbilical hernias—the intra-abdominal pressure, all that huffing and puffing just to push out a new baby into the world, is subjecting your abdominal muscles to extraordinary pressure. Worse, if your navel area happens to have a weak spot, there is almost a hundred percent chance that an umbilical hernia will develop by the time you deliver your latest baby.

The key word for umbilical hernias appearing in adulthood is “pressure.” You exert more pressure on your abdominal area, something’s got to give. For example, lifting heavy weights, incessant coughing, or excessive obesity (the extra weight exerts excessive internal pressure in a finite vessel like your body) increases one’s risk for developing umbilical hernia.

Repair/treatment of an umbilical hernia

It is fairly easy to diagnose an umbilical hernia: you only have to look at it. But of course, a proper doctor can better diagnose it, especially in terms of determining if there are associated complications. If one is curious about the contents of the hernia sac (that protrusion of thin, sac-like flesh), your doctor can even provide you learned answers, although he or she may use medical words to avoid causing panic. Furthermore, there are certain cases in which diagnosing an umbilical hernia might take more than the usual physical examination—medical screening methods such as abdominal ultrasound, CT scan, blood tests, or even an X-ray may be performed to find accurate answers.

Normally, umbilical hernias do not necessarily require surgery. In fact, in hernias affecting babies or children, one can simply push the protruding sac back into the abdomen and see if it does not come back—although only doctors should be allowed to do this to avoid any regrettable consequence.

There are cases, however, in which surgery to repair an umbilical hernia is the only logical (and sometimes urgent) option. For example, if instead of naturally disappearing, the congenital hernia actually further grows even after the affected child hits the second year of life or if the hernia is still defiantly existent at four years old. Sometimes, too, the hernia—instead of being the harmless, physical quirks that they often are—begins to seriously affect certain internal organs. If it causes a blockage in the intestines or becomes a magnet of infection, that is the time when one looks at the hernia with a sense of finality and resolve. This is serious: in fact, even in an advanced country as the USA, less than a hundred people die each year from untreated umbilical hernias (and that is only based on data from official death certificates).

Surgically removing an umbilical hernia is relatively easy. As they say, this is no brain surgery. All it takes is a quick operation that involves pushing the bulge back into its right place (which means nowhere outside the body), and then expertly stitching up the abdominal muscle. Aside from removing the unsightly bulge, the goal of this surgery is also to make the affected muscle area stronger. And thanks to state-of-the-art surgical implements, it is also relatively clean: the surgeon can either use dissolvable stitches that slowly disappear or “sublimate” in a few days or weeks, or they can use a special glue to close it up.

While an umbilical hernia is not urgently life-threatening, it is also no laughing matter. Fortunately, the surgical options are well-established and safe and should be performed if the congenital hernia does not seem to be planning on going away. Before deciding on anything, have a serious talk with your doctor.