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A to Z: Hernia, Hiatal

May also be called: Paraesophageal Hernia; Hiatus Hernia

A hiatal (hy-AY-tul) hernia is a hernia that happens when the uppermost part of the stomach bulges through the diaphragm, where the esophagus joins the stomach.

More to Know

A hernia is an opening or weakness in the wall of a muscle, tissue, or membrane that normally holds an organ in place. If the opening or weakness is large enough, a portion of the organ may be able to protrude through the hole.

With a hiatal hernia, the weakness happens at an opening in the diaphragm, a thin sheet of muscle that separates the lungs and heart from the stomach and other organs. This opening is where the esophagus (the pipe that food travels down) joins the stomach. If the muscle around the opening becomes weak, part of the stomach can protrude through it and enter the chest cavity.

Doctors aren't sure what causes hiatal hernias, but they're most common in older people (not kids). In many cases, small ones don't cause any symptoms. Unlike other hernias, hiatal hernias can't be seen on the outside of the body. They may cause difficulty swallowing, heartburn, indigestion, and chest pain.

Small hiatal hernias can be treated with medication and diet changes, but sometimes do require surgery.

Keep in Mind

Hiatal hernias are uncommon in young people. The symptoms caused by a hiatal hernia usually can be treated effectively with lifestyle changes and the use of medications to control stomach acid. When surgery is required to repair a hiatal hernia, the results are typically very good.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.

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