Definition Hiatal hernia is a condition in which the upper part of the stomach moves into the chest through a hole in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle that divides the chest cavity from the abdomen.
What is going on in the body? The oesophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. It enters the abdominal cavity through a hole in the diaphragm called the oesophageal hiatus. When a person has hiatal hernia, the oesophageal hiatus is usually weakened or larger than usual. At times, the upper part of the stomach can pass up through this larger-than-usual hole and into the diaphragm.
What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? A person with a hiatal hernia often has no symptoms, and the hernia may be found only during a test called an upper GI series. When symptoms do occur they can include:
How is the condition diagnosed? After a complete history and physical, the doctor may order:
ultrasound, a test that uses sound waves to see the diaphragm and stomach
endoscopy, a procedure that uses a long tube to look inside the oesophagus
an upper GI series. In this test a person swallows liquid barium, and x-rays are taken to follow the course of the barium through the oesophagus and into the stomach.
stool tests and cultures
oesophageal motility tests, to evaluate the movement of food and other contents within the oesophagus
pH tests to evaluate the acid contents of the oesophagus
What are the long-term effects of the condition? Hiatal hernias can cause gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). GORD is chronic heartburn from stomach acid backing up into the oesophagus. Ulcers or irritation of the lining of the oesophagus and upper stomach can also occur. Strangulation of the oesophagus or stomach may also occur with this condition.
What are the risks to others? Hiatal hernia poses no risk to others.
What are the treatments for the condition? Treatment of hiatal hernia is focused on treating and reducing symptoms. To reduce symptoms, a person should:
maintain a healthy weight, or losing weight if obese
avoid eating within 2 hours before bedtime
avoid straining during bowel movements or heavy lifting
Medications that block acid production in the stomach or that make the stomach empty faster may help.
Surgery may be needed if symptoms are severe or persistent, or if there is a large hole in the diaphragm. The surgery is done to strengthen the diaphragm and decrease the size of the oesophageal hiatus.
What happens after treatment for the condition? For mild intermittent symptoms, treatment with antacids, watching diet and activity may control hiatal hernia. For more serious recurrent symptoms, surgery may be needed. Recovery from surgery may be a few days to several weeks depending on the procedure used.
How is the condition monitored? Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.
Author: Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia Last Updated: 1/10/2001 Contributors Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request
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