Working out with a hernia can be dangerous, and just worrying about the risk of making it worse can ruin your workout. Although it's possible that nothing bad will happen and that you'll live your life normally, you should have your hernia repaired if you want to be truly safe and worry-free.
If you have a hernia, you can exercise as long as you avoid lifting heavy weights and performing movements that cause strain. The severity of your condition will determine whether or not you can continue to work out.
Different Types of Hernias
Hernias are some of the most common nonemergency surgeries worldwide. They're typically not serious enough to warrant immediate intervention. However, a hernia can be dangerous and even life-threatening, although that's the worst-case scenario.
The most common hernia sites are the groin, bellybutton and abdominal wall. For men, the most typical form of hernia is in the groin — and it's called inguinal hernia. It can be caused either by a genetic abnormality that makes you more susceptible to hernias or by physical activity.
Inguinal hernias are more common in men than women. About 25 percent of all men will suffer from an inguinal hernia at some point, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. This condition affects the inguinal canal, a small opening in the abdominal muscle near the groin.
In men, the spermatic duct passes through this area. In women, the ligament that holds the uterus passes through. This opening makes the area particularly vulnerable to a hernia.
Femoral hernias occur when there's a breach in the abdominal muscle at the top of the thigh. These are more common in women, according to the UK's National Health Service.
Umbilical hernias, in or close to your bellybutton, are common in children, but roughly 10 percent of hernias in adults are umbilical, according to the American College of Surgeons. If you've already had one as a child, there's still a risk of multiple umbilical hernias. If you have one, you can probably see the bump when you look down at your bellybutton.
Abdominal hernias occur in the abdomen and are caused by a weakness in the abdominal wall. If that weakness is caused by a previous surgery, you may develop an incisional hernia, where the area previously opened during a surgical procedure allows your tissues to protude.
Read more: Exercising With a Hernia
How Hernias Occur
Although the term hernia is broad and can mean any tissue bulging through the skin or muscles, this condition often occurs in the abdomen. When there's a tear or weakness in the abdominal wall, the tissues underneath can push through. If that happens, you'll see a bump in the affected area.
The types of tissue that can push through might be less important, such as fat. On the other hand, vital organs like your intestines can push through. When an organ pushes through, it can put your life in danger.
The risks of a hernia come from incarceration and strangulation, according to Kaiser Permanente. Normally, when you get a hernia, you can press on the bump and push the tissue back in. If the tissue becomes trapped, it's incarcerated, meaning that it's stuck. When that happens, you're at risk for strangulation.
When the tissue is strangled, its blood supply is cut off. Without a blood supply, it can die, which may cause an infection. If that happens, you'll likely experience specific symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and fever. In that case, emergency surgery may be required.
To avoid getting to that point, it's important to learn how to work around your hernia. Once you feel a bump or a doctor diagnoses you with a hernia, you need to be careful.
A hernia can never heal on its own. You'll eventually need surgery to close the gap. In the meantime, you can continue to exercise.
Working Out With a Hernia
Since a hernia results from a tear in the abdominal wall, you should be mindful when you do any abdominal exercises. First and foremost, you need to focus on your breathing. The valsalva maneuver, a breathing maneuver many people naturally do, raises pressure in the abdomen, according to an August 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
The valsalva maneuver takes place when you strain and hold your breath at the same time, causing pressure to rise in your abdomen. Normally it's not a problem, but when you're trying to protect your abdomen from further injury, it's something to watch out for.
When you're working out with a hernia, particularly if you're doing core exercises, focus on breathing constantly during every rep. Don't hold your breath. You should breathe out when you're exerting yourself and breathe in as you relax.
The basic crunch exercise is a good example. As you crunch up by lifting your shoulders off the ground, blow out through your mouth until you get to the top. Then, as you relax and lower down, you can breathe in. You can also try counting the number of reps you've done out loud.
Regulating your breathing will not only decrease the amount of pressure in your abdomen, but it will also help eliminate exercises that cause you to strain. Heavy weightlifting exercises, such as the deadlift, cause an increase of abdominal pressure and should be avoided if you're worried about your hernia.
There are a few deadlift variations, but the barbell deadlift is particularly popular because it allows you to heavy weights. Each end of the barbell can hold hundreds of pounds. It's also a powerful movement because you can use major muscle groups, such as the back and legs, as opposed to a bicep curl where you're naturally limited because the muscle is small.
Avoiding heavy weightlifting exercises that cause strain decreases the chance that you'll make your hernia worse. On the other hand, you can still hurt your abdomen without lifting weights.
Stretching your abdominal wall too much can worsen the tear in your abdomen. If you do a back-bending movement like the upward dog in yoga, you're lengthening the abdominal muscles. This puts strain on them, which is dangerous. Ideally, you should stay away from abdominal stretches.
Avoid Worsening Your Hernia
If you're careful, you can avoid danger for some time. However, you should be aware of the risks involved. If you have an inguinal hernia, you can wear a special, protective form of underwear that supports your groin. It's very tight, similar to compression shorts, and secures the groin.
For an abdominal or umbilical hernia, you can wear a hernia belt, which pushes in against the hernia site and can protect against the outward pressure of the abdomen.
Compression underwear and hernia belts have the same effect on a hernia. They press against it. This can help relieve your pain, but won't solve the problem.
If you're waiting to have surgery, these tools can simply help reduce the symptoms of your hernia. However, they won't lessen the risks of exercise.
As long as your doctor clears you for exercise with your hernia, it's important to keep working out. According to the University of Utah, one of the causes of hernias is obesity. If you're overweight, exercise can help you lose weight, which is important for hernia prevention.
Is This an Emergency?
- University of Michigan Health: "Common Types of Hernias"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Inguinal Hernia"
- University of Utah Health: "Hernias 101 - What Is a Hernia and What Can Cause One?"
- Pelvic Floor First: "Modifying Exercise Programs"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "The Valsalva Maneuver: Its Effect on Intra-abdominal Pressure and Safety Issues During Resistance Exercise"
- Kaiser Permanente: "Inguinal Hernia: Should I Have Surgery Now, or Should I Wait?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Hernia"
- American College of Surgeons: "Adult Umbilical Hernia Repair"
- National Health Services: "Femoral Hernia Repair"