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Diaphragmatic Hernia


Jaime Belkind-Gerson

, MD, MSc, University of Colorado

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2023
Topic Resources

Diaphragmatic hernia is protrusion of abdominal contents into the thorax through a defect in the diaphragm. Lung compression may cause persistent pulmonary hypertension. Diagnosis is by chest x-ray. Treatment is surgical repair.

Diaphragmatic hernia usually occurs in the posterolateral portion of the diaphragm (Bochdalek hernia) in 95% of cases and is on the left side in 85% of cases; in 2% of cases it is bilateral. The estimated incidence is 1 to 4 in 10,000 live births. Anterior hernias (Morgagni hernia) are far less common (5% of cases). Other congenital anomalies are present in approximately 50% of cases, and adrenal insufficiency is relatively common.

Loops of small and large bowel, stomach, liver, and spleen may protrude into the hemithorax on the involved side. If the hernia is large and the amount of herniated abdominal contents is substantial, the lung on the affected side is hypoplastic; however, the lung on the opposite side can also be adversely affected. Other pulmonary consequences include underdevelopment of the pulmonary vasculature, resulting in an elevation of pulmonary vascular resistance and hence pulmonary hypertension. Persistent pulmonary hypertension Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn is the persistence of or reversion to pulmonary arteriolar constriction, causing a severe reduction in pulmonary blood flow and right-to-left... read more leads to right-to-left shunting at the level of the foramen ovale or through a patent ductus arteriosus and prevents adequate oxygenation, even with oxygen supplementation or mechanical ventilation. Persistent pulmonary hypertension is the major cause of death among infants with congenital diaphragmatic hernia.

Symptoms and Signs of Diaphragmatic Hernia

Respiratory distress typically occurs in the first several hours after birth and occurs immediately after delivery in severe cases. After delivery, as the neonate cries and swallows air, the stomach and the loops of intestine quickly fill with air and rapidly enlarge, causing acute respiratory compromise as the heart and mediastinal structures are pushed to the right (with the most frequent left-sided hernia), compressing the more normal right lung. A scaphoid abdomen (due to displacement of abdominal viscera into the chest) is likely. Bowel sounds (and an absence of breath sounds) may be heard over the involved hemithorax.

In less severe cases, mild respiratory difficulty develops a few hours or days later as abdominal contents progressively herniate through a smaller diaphragmatic defect. Rarely, presentation is delayed until later in childhood, sometimes after a bout of infectious enteritis, which causes sudden herniation of bowel into the chest.

Diagnosis of Diaphragmatic Hernia

  • Sometimes, by prenatal ultrasonography

  • Chest x-ray

In the delivery room, diaphragmatic hernia may be suspected when newborns with respiratory distress have a scaphoid abdomen.

After delivery, diagnosis is by chest x-ray showing the stomach and intestine protruding into the chest. In a large defect, there are numerous air-filled loops of intestine filling the hemithorax and contralateral displacement of the heart and mediastinal structures. If the x-ray is taken immediately after delivery before the neonate has swallowed air, the abdominal contents appear as an opaque airless mass in the hemithorax.

Diagnosis reference

  • 1. Cordier AG, Russo FM, Deprest J, et al: Prenatal diagnosis, imaging, and prognosis in congenital diaphragmatic hernia. Semin Perinatol 44(1):51163, 2020. doi:10.1053/j.semperi.2019.07.002

Treatment of Diaphragmatic Hernia

  • Surgical repair

If diaphragmatic hernia is suspected in a neonate with respiratory distress, the neonate should be immediately endotracheally intubated and ventilated in the delivery room. Bag-and-mask ventilation should be avoided because it may fill the displaced intrathoracic viscera with air and worsen respiratory compromise. Continuous nasogastric suction with a double-lumen nasogastric tube prevents swallowed air from progressing through the gastrointestinal tract and causing further lung compression.

Surgery is required to replace the intestine in the abdomen and to close the diaphragmatic defect after the neonate's oxygenation, acid-base balance, and blood pressure have been optimally managed.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Avoid bag-and-mask ventilation in neonates with respiratory distress due to diaphragmatic hernia because it may further inflate the displaced intrathoracic viscera.

Severe persistent pulmonary hypertension requires stabilization before surgery with inhaled nitric oxide, which may help dilate the pulmonary arteries and improve systemic oxygenation. Studies show improved outcome with use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO); however, neonates with extreme pulmonary hypoplasia still do not survive. Successful transport of a critically ill neonate with congenital diaphragmatic hernia and persistent pulmonary hypertension is very difficult. Therefore, if a diaphragmatic hernia is diagnosed by prenatal ultrasonography, delivery at a pediatric center with ECMO facilities is recommended.

Key Points

  • A congenital diaphragmatic hernia can allow abdominal contents to enter the chest cavity, compressing the lung and causing neonatal respiratory distress.

  • Pulmonary hypertension is common.

  • Diagnosis is by chest x-ray.

  • Treat with endotracheal intubation followed by surgical repair; often, ECMO is necessary.

NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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