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Inguinal hernia

5-minute read

Key facts

  • An inguinal hernia is when part of your stomach contents protrudes into your groin through a weakness in the muscles of your lower abdomen.
  • Inguinal hernias are much more common in males than females.
  • Inguinal hernias may occur because of a birth defect in the abdominal muscles, or due to a weakness in the muscles that developed over time.
  • If the hernia causes part of your bowel to become trapped and cuts the blood supply, this is a medical emergency.
  • Surgery is usually recommended to fix the hernia and help prevent complications.

What is an inguinal hernia?

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

An inguinal hernia happens when there is a weakness in the muscles in the lower part of the abdomen, and some of the contents of the abdomen are pushed through this opening into the groin.

What are the symptoms of an inguinal hernia?

You may first notice an inguinal hernia as a lump in the groin. The lump is usually painless, but some people report discomfort or a 'dragging' sensation. The lump may be more noticeable when you cough or strain, and usually disappears when you relax or lie down.

What causes an inguinal hernia?

There are two main types of inguinal hernias, each with different causes.

Indirect inguinal hernias usually happen because of a congenital (from birth) opening in the lower abdominal muscles. This opening usually closes before birth; if it doesn't, it can cause abdominal contents to protrude through the hole. Most of the time, this kind of hernia is diagnosed at birth or within the first year of life, but in some cases, it may only be identified later in life. Indirect inguinal hernias are more common in babies born prematurely.

Direct inguinal hernias usually result from weakening of the abdominal muscles over time.

Excessive straining can also increase the chance of a direct inguinal hernia (for example, straining on the toilet or frequent coughing).

Both types of hernia are more common in males.

When should I see my doctor?

All children and adults with a hernia should see a doctor, as there may be complications.

Adults should also see a doctor if their hernia changes or gets worse.

Seek urgent medical attention if your or your child have an inguinal hernia, and also develop:

  • fever
  • severe pain that gets worse
  • purple or red discolouration of the hernia
  • nausea or vomiting
  • inability to pass a stool (poo) or gas
  • a fast heartbeat
  • a sudden pain or swelling in the scrotum

If you or your child have an inguinal hernia and experience severe abdominal pain, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

How will my doctor diagnose an inguinal hernia?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine your groin. You will probably be asked to cough, and your doctor might refer you for an ultrasound of the groin.

How will I be treated for inguinal hernia?

Most people will be advised to have surgery to fix the hernia, as this reduces the chance of developing complications.

Can I prevent an inguinal hernia?

Inguinal hernias present from birth (congenital) are not preventable.

Adults are less likely to have an inguinal hernia if they are at a healthy weight and don't smoke. If you have an inguinal hernia, you can prevent symptoms by quitting smoking and regularly eating high fibre foods to avoid constipation.

What are the complications of an inguinal hernia?

The main complication of an inguinal hernia is if it becomes strangulated. This happens when the bowel loop contained in the hernia becomes stuck outside the muscle wall, cutting off its blood supply. This is a medical emergency.

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance if you or your child has an inguinal hernia and develops:

  • fever
  • pain in the groin
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tender swelling that is red or pale blue/grey
  • the swelling doesn’t change in size when your child is crying

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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