Hernia repair, one of the most common surgical procedures, carries a risk many patients don't consider: chronic pain after surgery. More than 30% of patients may suffer from long-term chronic pain and restricted movement after surgery to fix a hernia, a bulge of the intestine or body fat through a weak area in the abdomen, studies show. Damage to nerves and muscles from the hernia may cause lingering discomfort. New synthetic mesh devices, though better than traditional sutures at reinforcing the abdominal wall, can irritate nerves and carry a slightly higher risk of infection.
"Doctors may often say it's just a hernia, but this is not a 100% benign procedure, and we need to help patients weigh the potential risks and benefits of surgery and say no if they need to," says B. Todd Heniford, chief of the division of gastrointestinal and minimally invasive surgery at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., and president of the American Hernia Society, which represents surgeons who specialize in hernias and abdominal-wall abnormalities.
More than a million patients a year undergo surgery for some kind of hernia. About 80% are so-called inguinal hernias in the groin area. There isn't always an obvious cause. Some are hereditary or linked to weakness in the abdominal wall that may happen at birth when the abdomen lining doesn't close properly. Other types of hernias are caused by pregnancy, trauma or previous surgical incisions. Hernias can affect both adults and children, and men are most at risk.