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Hernias in women often overlooked, misdiagnosed

February 3, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
It's a condition you probably associate with men, but women can suffer from hernias too. They can be painful and debilitating, but a simple surgery can fix the problem. However, sometimes the hardest part for women is getting the right diagnosis.

Author Martine Ehrenclou writes about how patients can take charge of their healthcare, but recently Martine had to follow her own advice when she started experiencing severe abdominal pain.

"The pain felt like a red-hot poker in my lower abdominals," said Martine.

Martine saw 12 different doctors and spent 10 months in intense pain. Still, no one could tell her what was wrong. Then she found a doctor who finally gave her an accurate diagnosis.

"She walked in and she said, 'This is what you have and I can help you,' and I cried," said Martine.

It was a hernia. Martine actually had two. Cedar-Sinai's Dr. Shirin Towfigh says hernias are often overlooked in women.

"They tend to have the pain, but not the bulge," said Towfigh.

A hernia happens when part of an internal organ bulges through a hole in a muscle, which can entrap abdominal fat and compress nerves, causing intense pain. Women are more likely to have internal hernias. The hard part: diagnosing it.

"An exam alone is not 100 percent," said Towfigh.

Pain from hernias may be misdiagnosed as pelvic pain from ovarian cysts, fibroids, endometriosis or adhesions. Towfigh says a vaginal exam, an MRI and a complete patient history are the best ways to spot one, and fixing a hernia is simple.

"The same way that when we were kids and we had a hole in our jeans, our mom would put the patch, that's kind of a simple way of describing our surgical way of fixing it," said Towfigh.

Martine had hers fixed and can now focus on making music with her daughter and not her pain.

"I'm getting my life back," said Martine.

Women account for only 8 percent of hernias, but Towfigh says that figure is probably low because many with hernias remain undiagnosed.

Towfigh also says sometimes if a woman is examined while standing up, the bulge will show, but often these hernias cannot be seen or felt.