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Children with umbilical hernias, Sierra Leone (West Africa), 1967.
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A hernia is present at the site of the umbilicus (commonly called a navel, or belly button) in the newborn; although sometimes quite large, these hernias tend to resolve without any treatment by around the age of 2–3 years. Obstruction and strangulation of the hernia is rare because the underlying defect in the abdominal wall is larger than in an inguinal hernia of the newborn. The size of the base of the herniated tissue is inversely correlated with risk of strangulation (i.e. narrow base is more likely to strangulate).
Babies are prone to this malformation because of the process during fetal development by which the abdominal organs form outside the abdominal cavity, later returning into it through an opening which will become the umbilicus.
Hernias may be asymptomatic and present only as a bulge of the umbilicus. Symptoms may develop when the contracting abdominal wall causes pressure on the hernia contents. This results in abdominal pain or discomfort. These symptoms may be worsened with lifting and straining.
There are three causes of umbilical hernia.
Congenital umbilical hernia is a congenital malformation of the navel (umbilicus). Among adults, it is three times more common in women than in men; among children, the ratio is roughly equal. It is also found to be more common in children of African descent.
Navels with the umbilical tip protruding past the umbilical skin ("outies") are often mistaken for umbilical hernias, which are a completely different shape. Treatment for cosmetic purposes is not necessary, unless there are health concerns such as incarceration. Umbilical hernias are rare. With a study involving Africans 92% of children had protrusions, 49% of adults, and 90% of pregnant women. However, a much smaller amount: only 23% of children, 8% of adults, and 15% of pregnant women actually suffered from hernias.
When the orifice is small (< 1 or 2 cm), 90% close within 3 years (some sources state 85% of all umbilical hernias, regardless of size), and if these hernias are asymptomatic, reducible, and don't enlarge, no surgery is needed (and in other cases it must be considered).
In some communities mothers routinely push the small bulge back in and tape a coin over the palpable hernia hole until closure occurs. This practice is not medically recommended as there is a small risk of trapping a loop of bowel under part of the coin resulting in a small area of ischemic bowel. This "fix" does not help and germs may accumulate under the tape, causing infection. The use of bandages or other articles to continuously reduce the hernia is not evidence-based.
An umbilical hernia can be fixed in two different ways. The surgeon can opt to stitch the walls of the abdominal or he/she can place mesh over the opening and stitch it to the abdominal walls. The latter is of a stronger hold and is commonly used for larger defects in the abdominal wall. Most surgeons will not repair the hernia until 5–6 years after the baby is born. Most umbilical hernias in infants and children close spontaneously and rarely have complications of gastrointestinal content incarcerations.
The amount of projection of the swelling varies from child to child. In some, it may be just a small protrusion; in others it may be a large rounded swelling that bulges out when the baby cries. This may hardly be visible when the child is quiet and or sleeping. Normally, the abdominal muscles converge and fuse at the umbilicus during the formation stage, however, in some cases, there remains a gap where the muscles do not close and through this gap the inner intestines come up and bulge under the skin, giving rise to an umbilical hernia. The bulge and its contents can easily be pushed back and reduced into the abdominal cavity.
In contrast to an inguinal hernia, the complication incidence is very low, and in addition, the gap in the muscles usually closes with time and the hernia disappears on its own. The treatment of this condition is essentially conservative - observation allowing the child to grow up and see if it disappears. Operation and closure of the defect is required only if the hernia persists after the age of 3 years or if the child has an episode of complication during the period of observation like irreducibility, intestinal obstruction, abdominal distension with vomiting, or red shiny painful skin over the swelling. Surgery is always done under anesthesia, and the defect in the muscles is defined and the edges of the muscles are brought together with sutures to close the defect. The child needs to stay in the hospital for 2 days and the healing is complete within 8 days.
At times, there may be a fleshy red swelling seen in the hollow of the umbilicus that persists after the cord has fallen off. It may bleed on touch, or may stain the clothes that come in contact with it. This needs to be shown to a pediatric surgeon. This is most likely to be an umbilical polyp and the therapy is to tie it at the base with a stitch so that it falls off and there is no bleeding. Alternatively, it may be an umbilical granuloma that responds well to local application of dry salt or silver nitrate but may take a few weeks to heal and dry.
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