Causes of Inguinal Hernias: An Overview

An inguinal hernia is the most common type of hernia, and it can affect adults or children. It's a protrusion of abdominal tissue or a part of the small intestine through a weakened part of the lower abdominal muscles.

There are two types of inguinal hernias—indirect and direct. Learn about the causes, treatment and prevention of these common health problems.

Indirect Inguinal Hernia

Causes: An indirect inguinal hernia occurs at birth—mostly in males—due to a problem that occurs during development.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in male babies the spermatic cord and testicles that form in the abdomen move down through the inguinal canal and enter the scrotum.

If the entrance to the inguinal canal does not close completely, it causes a weakness in the abdominal wall through which abdominal tissue or the small intestine can protrude. Premature infants are more at risk for indirect inguinal hernias because the inguinal canal is not fully developed.

Although less common in females, an inguinal hernia can result from a part of the small intestine or female organs protruding through a weak spot in the abdominal wall. Also, the Mayo Clinic states that female children and adults are more susceptible to developing hernias in the femoral canal, an area near the inguinal canal through which the femoral artery, vein and nerve travel.

Direct Inguinal Hernia

Causes: These hernias, which occur only in males, result from the breakdown of connective tissue in the abdominal wall that comes with age. As a result, it's easier for fat or a part of the small intestine to protrude through the muscles in the groin.

The NIH explains that direct inguinal hernias can be brought on or worsened by repeated stress on the muscles through activities such as:

  • heavy lifting
  • sudden twists or pulls of the abdominal muscles
  • muscle strains
  • weight gain
  • straining to have a bowel movement because of constipation
  • chronic coughing

Other possible causes of direct inguinal hernias include pregnancy, being overweight or obese, and having an enlarged prostate that causes you to strain when you urinate.

Treatment of Inguinal Hernias

If you suspect you have an inguinal hernia, you should see your doctor right away. Some hernias can be massaged back into the inguinal canal, and a truss can be worn to reduce pain. However, neither of these are cures.

If your hernia is small your doctor may recommend monitoring it before any other treatment. However, most inguinal hernias continue to grow and harden, so further treatment may be necessary.

The most common treatment for hernia is surgery to push the protruding tissue back into the abdomen and repair the abdominal wall.

How to Prevent an Inguinal Hernia

However, prevention is always better than surgery. These tips from the Mayo Clinic will help you to avoid some of the causes of hernia:

  • Avoid heavy lifting if you can, ask for assistance, or use support such as a dolly.
  • Keep your weight within a healthy range—including during pregnancy.
  • Prevent constipation by increasing fiber in your diet.
  • Quit smoking cigarettes, which is linked to an increased risk and worsening of inguinal hernias.