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Can Lifting Weights Cause a Hernia?

Worried that ramping up your weight lifting circuit might give you a hernia? Hernias are a common concern, especially among weight lifters, primarily because of the nature of the injury - they most often result from lifting something heavy.

What exactly is a hernia?

There are a handful of types of hernias, but the general gist of the injury is that it is a portion of organ protruding through the tissue lining which is supposed to hold it in. For example, an abdominal hernia is a loop of the intestines busting through the abdominal wall and forming a visible bulge underneath the skin. Weightlifters who do develop a hernia will most often get this type.

Other hernias happen in the chest cavity (hiatal hernia) where a portion of the stomach protrudes up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity, causing acid reflux and other nauseating symptoms. And others around the belly button (umbilical hernia) and at the site of a recent surgical incision (incisional hernia).

What causes a hernia?

Just because you lift weights doesn't put you at risk for developing a hernia more than the next guy (or girl). It's that type of physical exertion combined with a weakened abdominal wall in the first place that will make your more susceptible.

The muscular structure of the abdominal wall is typically weaker due to predisposing genetic factors out of your control, as well as chronic coughing, or damage from a previous surgery or simply older age. Weakened tissue is not fortified enough against an organ pushing strongly against it, which is what happens when you lift something heavy, and that's how it becomes torn and lets the organ push through.

Your risk goes up for developing a hernia if there is a present family history of hernias, if you have chronic cough or constipation which places added pressure on abdominal walls, or if you are overweight or obese.

Symptoms of an abdominal (inguinal) hernia include:

A visible bulge in the abdomen or groin area

Tenderness, burning, and aching at the site of the lump

The feeling of heavy pressure or weakness in the groin

Pain in the lower abdomen when laughing, coughing, lifting, or bending over

Are hernias dangerous?

While you should always seek a medical evaluation from a doctor if you are concerned that you have developed a hernia, they are not always dangerous. In fact, many people live with abdominal hernias for years and even exercise with them. There are complications, however, which can arise from a hernia and lead to life-threatening conditions.

Incarceration of a hernia, or where the loop of intestines becomes trapped outside the abdominal wall and can't be pushed back in can increase your risk for injury. When the blood supply to the portion of that organ then gets cut off, called strangulation, the tissue can become damaged and even start to die. This will require immediate surgical intervention.

How are hernias treated?

Hernias can only be repaired with surgery, however, it is not always necessary to continue day to day living and exercising. The portion of intestines composing the hernia can physically be pushed back into place and held there with a hernia belt.

How will a weight lifting belt prevent hernia complications? Weight lifting, or abdominal, hernia belts wrap around the abdomen and pinpoint compression and support to the area of the hernia, helping to reinforce the wall holding it in. This is especially critical when lifting weights or after surgery to prevent exacerbating the injury and increasing the pain associated with it.

Exercises to restore and strengthen the abdominal wall can also help you manage a hernia and prevent incarceration and strangulation. What's great about lifting weights and engaging in body building activity is that when done with correct body mechanics and form, those types of exercises can actually help prevent hernias by fortifying the abdominal wall.

How can I prevent a hernia?

If you are an avid weight lifter, you might already be at an advantage for preventing hernias because chances are you are not overweight and you exercise regularly. It is more often a sedentary, overweight individual who makes one awkward movement or tries to lift something ultra heavy all at once who develops an abdominal injury like a hernia.

You will want to make sure, however, that your weight lifting circuit and workout routine include effective dynamic workouts to help warm muscles and other connective tissues up before lifting heavy weights. You'll also want to perfect your form and technique to make sure you are lifting correctly, and not overexerting the abdominal wall.

Final thoughts

The lifetime risk for developing an inguinal hernia is much higher for men than it is for women, simply because of anatomy and the natural predilection for lifting heavy objects. Healthy habits like not smoking, maintaining a fit weight, and being smart about weightlifting technique and progression will go a long way in helping prevent acquired hernias.

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