An inguinal hernia is a protrusion of a piece of intestine through an opening in the abdominal wall in the groin.
An inguinal hernia extends into the groin and can extend into the scrotum. Other types of hernias (such as umbilical hernias and femoral hernias) occur at other locations (see Gastrointestinal Emergencies: Abdominal Wall Hernias). With an inguinal hernia, the opening in the abdominal wall can be present from birth or develop later in life.
Inguinal hernias usually produce a painless bulge in the groin or scrotum. The bulge may enlarge when men stand and shrink when they lie down because the intestine slides back and forth with gravity. Sometimes a portion of the intestine is trapped in the scrotum (incarceration). If the intestine becomes trapped, the intestine's blood supply can be cut off (strangulation). Strangulated intestine may die (become gangrenous) within hours.
Surgical repair usually aims to tighten the opening so the hernia cannot slide back into the groin. Surgery usually relieves the symptoms of a hernia, depending on its size and the amount of discomfort it causes. For strangulated hernias, emergency surgery is needed to pull the intestine out of the inguinal canal and tighten the opening.
Last full review/revision October 2008 by Paul D. Lui, MD