Hiatal hernia

Alternative names
Hernia - hiatal

Hiatal hernia is a condition in which a portion of the stomach protrudes upward into the chest through an opening in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the sheet of muscle used in breathing that separates the chest from the abdomen.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The cause is unknown, but hiatal hernias may be the result of a weakening of the supporting tissue. Increasing age, obesity, and Smoking are known risk factors in adults.

Children with this condition usually have it from birth (congenital). It is usually associated with gastroesophageal reflux in infants.

Hiatal hernias are very common, especially in people over 50 years old. This condition may cause regurgitation of gastric acid from the stomach into the esophagus.


  • Heartburn, worse when bending over or lying down  
  • Swallowing difficulty  
  • Chest pain  
  • Belching

A hiatal hernia by itself rarely causes symptoms - pain and discomfort are usually due to the reflux of gastric acid, air, or bile. This happens more easily in the presence of hiatal hernia.

Signs and tests


The goals of treatment are to relieve symptoms and prevent complications.

Reducing regurgitation of stomach contents into the esophagus (gastroesophageal reflux) will relieve pain symptoms. Medications that neutralize stomach acidity, decrease acid production, or strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter may be prescribed.

Other measures to reduce symptoms include:

  • Avoiding large or heavy meals  
  • Not lying down or bending over immediately after a meal  
  • Weight reduction and smoking cessation

Failure to control the symptoms by general or medical measures, or the onset of complications may require surgical repair of the hernia.

Expectations (prognosis)
Most symptoms are alleviated with treatment.


Calling your health care provider

Call your provider if symptoms indicate you may have developed a hiatal hernia.

Call your provider if you have a hiatal hernia and symptoms worsen or do not improve with treatment, or if new symptoms develop.


Controlling risk factors like obesity may play a preventative role.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Martin A. Harms, M.D.

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