Umbilical Hernia | Cause, Symptoms, Treatment | MedStar Health

When a weakness in the abdominal muscles in the area of the belly button (umbilicus) allow abdominal tissues and/or organs to protrude, this is referred to as an umbilical hernia. Umbilical hernias typically occur in babies, especially newborns who have low birth weight or who were born prematurely. However, umbilical hernias can also occur in adults.   

Symptoms of umbilical hernia

In newborns, an umbilical hernia may become noticeable when the baby:

  • Cries

  • Strains while making a bowel movement

  • Coughs

Adults may experience more severe symptoms, such as:

  • A noticeable bulge in the abdomen that gets bigger when coughing or straining

  • Pain at the area of the bulge

Contact a doctor if the bulge is red, hardened, swollen, and/or extremely painful. Vomiting and/or constipation may be signs of a more serious condition called a strangulated umbilical hernia. This occurs when the intestine has significantly protruded into the bulge and blood circulation is restricted. Strangulated umbilical hernias may need immediate medical attention.  

Causes of umbilical hernia

The umbilical cord is connected to the baby through a small opening in the abdomen and transfers nutrients from the mother to the fetus during pregnancy. After birth, the umbilical cord is disconnected and the abdomen begins to heal. Sometimes, the abdominal wall does not heal completely and a gap is left in the abdominal wall. This gap places the child at risk of developing an umbilical hernia.

In adults, umbilical hernias can develop due to:

  • Straining during childbirth

  • Obesity

  • Intense vomiting

  • Chronic constipation

  • Persistent, severe coughing

  • Frequent pregnancies

What to expect at your appointment?

During your baby’s appointment, your doctor will press on the abdomen and observe the behavior of the bulge. They will ask you questions about the symptoms you have noticed in your child.

For adult patients, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and will perform a physical examination.

In order to make a definitive diagnosis and assess the severity of the hernia, your doctor may prescribe one of the following diagnostic techniques:

  • MRI scan

  • CT scan

  • Ultrasound imaging

Additionally, your doctor may want to check for signs of infection by prescribing a blood test or a urine test.

Non-surgical treatments for umbilical hernia

Roughly 90 percent of cases of newborn umbilical hernias will heal on their own, before the age of five. If the hernia does not heal by the age of four, it is important to schedule an evaluation. This may indicate the need for surgical intervention. In adult cases of umbilical hernia, surgical intervention is required to repair the hernia.

Surgical treatment for umbilical hernia and post-treatment

Open repair is typically recommended for umbilical hernias. During open umbilical hernia repair, the surgeon will make an incision at the belly button, gently push the protruding tissues to their natural position, and stitch the opening closed. In adults, surgeons may reinforce the abdominal muscles with mesh.

This procedure typically takes about one hour and patients can usually go home the same day of the procedure, depending on their overall health and the complexity of the surgery. Adults can generally return to work within two to three days, but should avoid strenuous activities for as long as four to six weeks following surgery.

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