We do not really know why hiatal hernias occur.
The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the thorax from the abdomen. The diaphragm's hiatus is one of the anatomic structures that help to keep the oesophagus (intrathoracic) and the stomach (intraabdominal) in position. If the stomach is displaced towards the thorax, its gastric content, which is very acidic, can easily go back up the oesophagus. The existence of a hiatal hernia is one of the causes of acid reflux, but not the only cause.
This condition affects approximately 20% of the population, although knowing exactly how many people suffer from it is difficult because some of them do not present any symptoms at all. Those that experience symptoms usually suffer from acidity, abdominal discomfort, difficulty swallowing, bad breath or a dry cough.
When suffering from a hiatal hernia, a patient may have acid reflux, with the consequence being a chemical irritation from the stomach acid on the lining of the oesophagus. This leads to a form of inflammation, known as oesophagitis, which is very painful.
Such pain is located close to the heart, which is why it needs to be distinguished from the pain caused by angina or pericarditis.
There may also be no symptoms of a hiatal hernia.
Who is affected by the condition?
Hiatal hernias are very common and can affect 20% of the population at some point in their lives. It can also be an incidental x-ray finding in >40% of the asymptomatic population. Incidence increases with age and is most common in the over-50s.
Diagnosis of a hiatal hernia is based on demonstrating the abnormal position of the stomach and almost always the presence of acid reflux.
The oesophagus and the stomach can be X-rayed, as can the swallowing process and reflux. A substance must be taken that shows up as opaque on X-ray images in order to be able to see the aforementioned structures.
A flexible tube is inserted into the mouth, containing a camera for imaging the oesophagus and the stomach. This enables the position of the oesophagus and the stomach to be observed and the degree of inflammation detected.
During this test, a probe is inserted through the nose that allows pressure changes in the oesophagus to be observed during swallowing and detects abnormalities in the way it is functioning.
24-hour pH (acid) monitoring
Acid monitoring with a probe that is inserted through the nose and assesses the amount of acid reflux from the stomach to the oesophagus over a 24-hour period.
Hiatal hernias are treated if there is severe acid reflux or excessive compression (strangulation) in the part of the stomach that is displaced.
Medical treatment of the hiatal hernia is done using hygienic-dietetic measures, such as lifting the head of the bed, not eating copious amounts of food, light dinners and medications that counteract or decrease stomach acidity.
If the patient does not respond to medical treatment, surgical correction of the hiatal hernia can be performed to reposition the stomach intraabdominally.
Surgery can be performed by laparoscopy.