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Hiatus hernia

3-minute read

What is a hiatus hernia?

A hernia is where a part of the body protrudes through an abnormal opening in another part, and gets into a space where it doesn’t normally sit.

In a hiatus hernia, a part of the stomach pushes up through a hole in the diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen.  So part of the stomach ends up in the lower part of the chest.

A hiatus hernia can also be called a hiatal hernia.

What are the symptoms of a hiatus hernia?

Many people with a hiatus hernia have no symptoms. Some people feel:

  • pain in the abdomen
  • heartburn
  • an acid taste in the back of the mouth
  • bringing food or liquids back up into your mouth
  • acid reflux (acid entering the oesophagus)
  • difficulty swallowing
  • vomiting
  • chest or abdominal pain and shortness of breath

Some people with a hiatus hernia burp a lot.

These symptoms might be worse after meals or when lying down.

What causes a hiatus hernia?

A hiatus hernia is caused by a weakness in the opening between the oesophagus and diaphragm. Sometimes people are born with the weakness, and in others it develops over time.

When should I see my doctor?

Your doctor can help if your symptoms are bothering you and if your medication isn’t controlling them.

See a doctor right away if you have a hiatus hernia and you experience problems with swallowing, breathing or if:

  • you have pain that is getting worse
  • you have pain in your arms, neck, jaw, teeth or back
  • you are sick or nauseous
  • there is blood in your vomit or poo

If you have severe pain in the chest, or feel short of breath with some chest pain, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

How is a hiatus hernia treated?

Some people find the symptoms ease up or go away if they lose weight and drink less caffeine and alcohol. If you smoke, quitting will help.

You can buy antacids over the counter to neutralise stomach acid and relieve your symptoms. There are also medicines available - talk to your pharmacist or doctor. A very small number of people need surgery.

Can a hiatus hernia be prevented?

You are less likely to develop a hiatus hernia if you are a healthy weight and if you avoid being constipated.

If you have a hiatus hernia, you can avoid symptoms by:

  • avoiding foods that worsen your symptoms (these may include fatty foods, citrus foods like oranges or lemons, spicy foods and chocolate)
  • being a healthy weight
  • quitting smoking
  • avoiding any pressure on your abdomen (belly), for example, from wearing tight clothes
  • avoiding lifting heavy objects
  • avoiding straining on the toilet

Complications of a hiatus hernia

A hiatus hernia can give you bad reflux – when stomach acid flows back into your mouth. Long-term, this can damage your oesophagus or make it difficult to swallow.

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Last reviewed: March 2020

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