hiatus hernia and reflux

the esophagus, the diaphragm, the hiatus and the hernia
reflux and other effects of hiatus hernia
making a diagnosis
drug treatment
surgical treatment
diet
drugs used in this condition
when to consult your doctor
further reading


The esophagus, the diaphragm, the hiatus and the hernia

The diaphragm separates structures in the chest from those in the abdomen. Some organs are present both in the chest and abdomen, such as the foodpipe (esophagus) and the artery carrying blood to the legs (the aorta), and others. These organs make their own holes (hiatuses) in the diaphragm.
The esophagus passes through the esophageal hiatus to enter the abdomen and join the stomach. The stomach is loosely hanging in the abdominal cavity, and sometimes slides through the esophageal hiatus to partly enter the chest. This condition is a hiatus hernia, and is a way of saying that the stomach has herniated through the hiatus from the abdomen into the chest.

Top


reflux and other effects of hiatus hernia

A small part of the stomach entering the chest would not mean a great deal by itself. However, one of the important functions of the muscle at the lower end of the esophagus (the "cardiac sphincter", also called the lower esophageal sphincter) is to prevent acid in the stomach from refluxing into the esophagus, which, unlike the stomach, is not designed to tolerate acid. If a hiatus hernia is present, the function of the muscle is often weakened. Acid begins to reflux into the esophagus, and may produce the gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

When acid enters the esophagus, the patient feels the symptoms of sour eructations. There may be a burning sensation in the middle of the chest or in the upper abdomen. (Symptoms of reflux can be confused with those of peptic ulcer or even a heart attack!) In more severe cases the acid reaches the throat and enters the windpipe, and from there into the lungs. This can result in recurrent chest infections and asthma. In fact, in asthmatics who are not responding to treatment, it is important to rule out acid reflux. Acid in the esophagus can cause esophageal ulcers. These ulcers may heal with scarring, causing the esophagus to narrow and the patient to experience difficulty in swallowing. It should be stressed that not all patients with hiatus hernia have these symptoms, and for that matter, not all patients with these symptoms have a hiatus hernia.

Top


making a diagnosis

Symptomatic patients can be diagnosed by gastroscopy or by a barium swallow. Of the two, endoscopy is the preferred investigation, because of its greater accuracy and its ability to pick up other lesions. Most patient will not need further tests, unless the diagnosis is in doubt.

Top


drug treatment

Hiatus hernias are treated by medicines. The patient is advised to sleep with the upper body elevated at an angle of 30o. this can be done by means of pillows or by bricks placed under the head end of the bed. Reflux is minimized by frequent small, bland meals. Since acid plays an important role in the symptoms of hiatus hernia, acid reducing measures are required. These include drugs such as omeprazole, ranitidine and metoclopramide.

Top


surgical treatment

A small number of patients do not respond to drug treatment, and have persistent symptoms, recurrent chest infection, recurrent episodes of bronchospasm, or local complications such as ulceration or stricture formation. Sometimes the normal mucosa of the lower esophagus is replaced by mucosa resembling that found in the intestines. This condition is called Barrett's esophagus, and needs close observation because of the possibility of the development of cancer. In all such patients surgical measures to prevent reflux must be considered. At operation the upper stomach is wrapped around the lower esophagus in a manner that prevents reflux. The operation, called fundoplication, has a success rate of over 80%, although some patients experience a slight difficulty in swallowing.

These days a laparoscopic approach has been standardized for antireflux surgery, and many believe it to be the method of choice. After surgery the esophagus may become narrow to an extent that it interferes with swallowing. Presently this complication is commoner after laparoscopic repair, but with time laparoscopic results should match and even better the results of open surgery.

Top


diet

Hiatus hernias have the twin problems of acidity and reflux. Acidity can be prevented by avoiding chillies, minimizing alcohol, and above all by avoiding smoking completely.

Reflux can be minimized by keeping the volume of food low. This means that the patient should take small, frequent meals, avoiding drinking too much water.

Top


drugs used in this condition

Drugs to prevent ulcers in the stomach: omeprazole or lanzoprazole, ranitidine
Antacids: digene, gelusil etc may help some patients
Drugs to prevent vomiting: cisapride, metoclopramide

Top


when to consult your doctor

Small amounts of heartburn and acidity can be controlled by antacids. Most patients will need drugs that block production of acid. These are best prescribed by a doctor. Patients over the age of 40 MUST visit a doctor, not so much for the hiatus hernia, as much as to rule out other conditions.

Top


further reading

http://www.nevdgp.org.au/ginf2/murtagh/general/hiatushernia.htm: a nice site for hiatus hernia

http://www.bdf.org.uk/leaflets/hrtburn.html: heartburn faqs

Top


Author

Dr Suneet Sood, MBBS (AIIMS), MS (AIIMS), MAMS, is a practising surgeon attached to Dharamshila Cancer Hospital, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and to Noida Medicare Center. Formerly Professor of Surgery, Himalayan Institute of Medical Sciences, Dehradun, Dr Sood has a special interest in gastrointestinal surgery. He has had an active academic career, has published several papers in national and international journals, and is the Editor (with Dr Anurag Krishna) of a widely acclaimed book titled Surgical Diseases in Tropical Countries.
Contact Nos: 2486788, 9811052966, suneetsood@vsnl.com


Editorial board:

Dr Suneet Sood,MS, MAMS, Editor in chief
Dr Anurag Krishna, MS, MCh, MAMS


Back to Top

Last revised: May 12, 2000