Hiatal Hernia

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Bhupinder Anand, MD
woman with abdominal pain

Is there one more than one type of hiatal hernia?

The most common type of hiatal hernia is a sliding hiatal hernia. This accounts for 95% of all hiatal hernias and, because a hiatal hernia by itself causes no symptoms, it is unknown how frequently this condition exists in the general population. With a sliding hernia, the GE junction and a portion of the stomach slides upward into the mediastinum, the space in the chest between the lungs where the esophagus travels and where the heart is housed. The hernia is more prominent during inspiration when the diaphragm contracts and descends towards the abdominal cavity and when the esophagus shortens during swallowing.

In a paraesophageal hernia, the gap in the phrenoesophageal membrane is larger, and a greater portion of the stomach herniates into the chest alongside the esophagus and stays there, but the GE junction remains below the diaphragm. This is due to ligaments that keep parts of the stomach attached to other organs within the abdomen, and, should a paraesophageal hernia occur, parts of the stomach rotate upward to assume their position above the diaphragm.

In a combination of events, should the defect in the diaphragm become larger, the GE junction and more of the stomach can herniate and become displaced into the chest causing both a paraesophageal and a sliding hiatal hernia.

What are the signs and symptoms of a hiatal hernia?

By itself, a hiatal hernia causes no symptoms, and most are found incidentally when a person has a chest X-ray or abdominal X-rays (including upper GI series, and CT scans, where the patient swallows barium or another contrast material). It also is found incidentally during gastrointestinal endoscopy of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum (EGD).

Most often if symptoms occur, they are due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) where the digestive juice containing acid from the stomach moves up into the esophagus.

The stomach is a mixing bowl that allows food and digestive juices to mix together to begin the digestive process. The stomach has a protective lining that prevents acid from eating away at the stomach muscle and causing inflammation. Unfortunately, the esophagus does not have a similar protective lining. Instead it relies on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) located at the GE junction and the muscle of the diaphragm surrounding the esophagus to act as a valve to prevent acid from refluxing from the stomach into the esophagus. In addition to the LES, the normal location of the GE junction within the abdominal cavity is important in keeping acid where it belongs. There is increased pressure within the abdominal cavity compared to the chest cavity, particularly during inspiration, and the combination of pressure exerted within the lowermost esophagus from the LES, the diaphragm and the abdominal cavity creates a zone of higher pressure that keeps stomach acid in place.

In the situation of a sliding hiatal hernia, the GE junction moves above the diaphragm and into the chest, and the higher pressure zone is lost. Acid is allowed to reflux back into the esophagus causing inflammation of the lining of the esophagus and the symptoms of GERD.

These symptoms may include the following:

  • heartburn: chest pain or burning,
  • nausea, vomiting or retching (dry heaves)
  • burping
  • waterbrash, the rapid appearance of a large amount of saliva in the mouth that is stimulated by the refluxing acid

Symptoms usually are worse after meals. These symptoms may be made worse when lying flat and may resolve with sitting up or walking.

In some patients, reflux into the lower esophagus sets off nervous reflexes that can cause a cough or even spasm of the small airways within the lungs (asthma). A few patients may reflux acid droplets into the back of their throat. This acid can be inhaled or aspirated into the lung causing coughing spasms, asthma, or repeated infections of the lung including pneumonia and bronchitis. This may occur in individuals of all ages, from infants to the elderly.

Most paraesophageal hiatal hernias have no symptoms of reflux because the GE junction remains below the diaphragm, but because of the way the stomach has rotated into the chest, there is the possibility of a gastric volvulus, where the stomach twists upon itself. Fortunately, paraesophageal hernias are relatively uncommon. However, volvulus is a surgical emergency and causes difficult, painful swallowing, chest pain, and vomiting.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/10/2015

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Newsletters

Get the latest health and medical information delivered direct to your inbox!

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

  • Hiatal Hernia - Experience

    Please share your experience with hiatal hernia.

    Post View 31 Comments
  • Hiatal Hernia - Symptoms

    What symptoms have you experienced with hiatal hernia?

    Post View 21 Comments
  • Hiatal Hernia - Treatments

    What treatments have been effective for hiatal hernia/

    Post View 5 Comments
  • Hiatal Hernia - Medications

    What medications have been helpful in controlling symptoms of hiatal hernia?

    Post View 1 Comment
  • Hiatal Hernia - Lifestyle Changes

    What lifestyle changes have you made that have improved symptoms of hiatal hernia?

    Post View 2 Comments
  • Hiatal Hernia - Surgery

    Please describe your experience with hiatal hernia surgery.

    Post View 16 Comments
  • Hiatal Hernia - Type

    Please describe your experience with sliding hiatal hernia.

    Post View 4 Comments

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors