Umbilical Hernia In Adults

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When we think umbilical cords, we think babies. That makes sense because the umbilical cord, the vital link between a baby and its mother that provides the baby with food and oxygen while it’s in the womb, goes away soon after birth, and it doesn’t have anything to do with adults.

Or so it would seem. But, in a sense, our umbilical cords stay with us for our entire lives—what do you think your belly button is?—and while that’s usually not a problem at all—belly buttons are rather cute, actually—sometimes the remnants of our time as a fetus can cause us a bit of a problem as adults. This problem is commonly known as an Umbilical Hernia, and in adults, as with children, the complications can be serious.

Location of the Hernia: The umbilical cord

The umbilical cord itself develops as the fetus develops in utero. It normally contains two arteries and one vein, and these blood vessels are connected to the placenta, which transfers nutrients and oxygen from the mother’s blood without directly mixing the blood of the fetus with that of the mother; thus, the umbilical cord belongs, technically and physiologically, to the baby. The cord’s vein carries blood from the placenta to the fetus, and the arteries carry blood back from the fetus to the placenta.

The cord connects to the fetus right in the middle of the abdomen, and at that point the vessels enter the baby’s abdomen and connect internally to its circulatory system. Soon after birth, the circulation of blood through the umbilical cord ceases naturally, and the cord is cut—if you’ve been present at the birth of your children, you may have even done this job yourself—leaving a short stump attached at the abdomen. Within a few days, the stump dries up and falls off, leaving behind a little dimple that we call an umbilicus, navel or belly button.

The umbilicus, or Navel

Although it may seem like a simple scar, the umbilicus marks the point where that major circulatory pathway entered our bodies, and our entire abdomen developed around it. The depression of our belly button isn’t just external; under the surface, our abdominal muscles are also concave, and they are relatively thin at that point compared to elsewhere in the abdomen. Ideally, the abdominal muscles knit together securely around the umbilicus soon after our birth, but sometimes the seal isn’t complete.

The structure of the umbilicus creates a point of relative weakness in the abdominal wall, so the site is vulnerable to certain disorders and injuries. An Umbilical Hernia is one of them.

The Problem: Umbilical hernia

An umbilical hernia is a condition in which something that’s supposed to be inside the abdomen—fatty tissue or a part of the large intestine, for example—protrudes through the abdominal wall at the site of the umbilicus. Umbilical hernias in infants are somewhat common, affecting about 10 percent of newborns. Most of these cases however, heal before the baby is a year old. Umbilical hernias are also common in adults, however, and they’re more likely to require medical attention.

Umbilical hernias in adults occur most often when there is persistent or sharp stress on the abdominal wall, such as in overweight individuals, people who lift heavy objects, or women who have had multiple pregnancies. If you’ve had abdominal surgery, the incision may also have weakened your abdominal wall and could increase your risk of an umbilical hernia.

Signs and Symptoms

The most obvious sign of an umbilical hernia in an adult is a bulge at or near the navel. Sometimes it will disappear when there is no strain on the abdomen but will bulge outward when you cough, laugh, use the bathroom or otherwise create pressure on your abdominal wall. Adult umbilical hernias, especially in women, can remain mostly internal and create no obvious bulge, so sometimes they can go undiagnosed because the symptoms that manifest are unspecific abdominal pain without any outward sign that there’s a breach in the abdominal wall.

Complications

The bulge itself is not necessarily a serious condition, but it can lead to more serious issues. Problems arise when the tissue that protrudes through the abdominal wall gets stuck and can’t retreat back to where it’s supposed to be. The restriction can reduce blood flow to the tissue, resulting in pain and tissue damage. In the worst case, when the blood supply to the trapped tissue is cut off completely, the restricted tissue can die, and the resulting infection can spread to the rest of your body, causing life-threatening complications. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s not something you want to risk.

Treatment

If you notice a bulge in your abdomen, you should consult your doctor in order to determine the severity of the hernia. You should definitely seek treatment quickly if the bulge is painful, if it continues to swell, if it becomes discolored, or if you experience other symptoms along with it, such as vomiting.

The treatment for an adult umbilical hernia is usually surgery. It is a relatively simple procedure in which the doctor makes a small incision underneath the navel and pushes the affected tissue back into the abdominal cavity. The doctor then stitches the abdominal muscles back together and sometimes reinforces them with a surgical mesh. The procedure generally takes a half hour or less.

After the surgery, the abdominal wall is usually strong enough to withstand typical pressure, and recurring umbilical hernias after treatment are rare.

After the surgery, the abdominal wall is usually strong enough to withstand typical pressure, and recurring umbilical hernias after treatment are rare.

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