An umbilical hernia refers to a condition found most commonly in newborns, though it can also occur in adults. It’s estimated that as many as 20% of newborns may have the condition. With this particular type of hernia, part of the intestine, usually right near the belly button, is able to extrude out past the stomach muscles. In newborns and young children, you may notice a rounded bump poking out from the stomach, especially when babies use their stomach muscles for stretching, crying or having a bowel movement.
The good news about this type of hernia in a baby is that it seldom requires surgery. In most newborns and babies diagnosed with one, doctors do little but wait and watch. They are not considered painful, though they may be so in adults. Parents are asked to watch for signs that the baby is in distress, vomiting, and are told to look for any changes to the hernia bump, including enlargement and discoloration. Rarely, the part of intestine outside the muscle can get trapped by the muscle tissues, and lose needed oxygen to remain healthy. When this occurs, surgery is indicated to push the intestine back and build up the stomach muscle so the hernia doesn’t recur.
Children may require surgery if the umbilical hernia hasn’t resolved by the time they are four, though recommendations on surgery may vary with different doctors. Adults will usually require surgery shortly after they develop an umbilical hernia since adults can find these hernias highly painful. Risk factors for adults are very different than those for kids. Babies are more likely to have hernias if they had a low birth weight or were born prematurely. Adults may develop these hernias if they are obese or have engaged in excessive physical activity like heavy lifting. Having several pregnancies close together can also damage stomach muscles and make an umbilical hernia more likely to occur.
Surgery for adults and kids, unless complications have occurred and the intestinal tissue is damaged, may be an outpatient procedure. Commonly, the protruding intestine is pushed back behind the muscle tissue and the muscle is stitched together to prevent recurrence. This procedure may be done laparoscopically, so only a very tiny incision is required. Instead of stitches, surgeons may use mesh or netting that helps shore up the muscle wall.
Whether or not surgery is required, once an umbilical hernia resolves, there is very low chance that the condition will recur. Although it’s frightening for parents to have to deal with any medical condition a child may have, it’s important to remember that this condition is generally easily fixed, and may never require surgery. Even when a child does need surgery, bear in mind that repair has an extremely high rate of success and low rate of complications.