An umbilical hernia occurs when part of the intestine protrudes through the umbilical opening in the abdominal muscles. Umbilical hernias are common and typically harmless. They are most common in infants, but they can affect adults as well. In an infant, an umbilical hernia may be especially evident when the infant cries, causing the baby's bellybutton to protrude. This is a classic sign of an umbilical hernia.
In children, many umbilical hernias close on their own by age 1 or 2, though some take longer to heal. To prevent complications, umbilical hernias that don't disappear by age 4 or those that appear during adulthood may need surgical repair.
An umbilical hernia creates a soft swelling or bulge near the navel (umbilicus). If your baby has an umbilical hernia, you may notice the bulge only when he or she cries, coughs or strains. The bulge may disappear when your baby is calm or lies on his or her back.
Umbilical hernias in children are usually painless. Umbilical hernias that appear during adulthood may cause abdominal discomfort.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect that your baby has an umbilical hernia, talk with your child's pediatrician. Seek emergency care if your baby has an umbilical hernia and:
- Your baby appears to be in pain
- Your baby begins to vomit
- The bulge becomes tender, swollen or discolored
Similar guidelines apply to adults. Talk with your doctor if you have a bulge near your navel. Seek emergency care if the bulge becomes painful or tender. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help prevent complications.
During pregnancy, the umbilical cord passes through a small opening in the baby's abdominal muscles. The opening normally closes just after birth. If the muscles don't join together completely in the midline of the abdomen, this weakness in the abdominal wall may cause an umbilical hernia at birth or later in life.
In adults, too much abdominal pressure can cause an umbilical hernia. Possible causes in adults include:
- Multiple pregnancies
- Fluid in the abdominal cavity (ascites)
- Previous abdominal surgery
- Chronic peritoneal dialysis
Umbilical hernias are most common in infants — especially premature babies and those with low birth weights. Black infants appear to have a slightly increased risk of umbilical hernias. The condition affects boys and girls equally.
For adults, being overweight or having multiple pregnancies may increase the risk of developing an umbilical hernia. This type of hernia tends to be more common in women.
For children, complications of an umbilical hernia are rare. Complications can occur when the protruding abdominal tissue becomes trapped (incarcerated) and can no longer be pushed back into the abdominal cavity. This reduces the blood supply to the section of trapped intestine and can lead to umbilical pain and tissue damage. If the trapped portion of intestine is completely cut off from the blood supply (strangulated hernia), tissue death (gangrene) may occur. Infection may spread throughout the abdominal cavity, causing a life-threatening situation.
Adults with umbilical hernia are somewhat more likely to experience incarceration or obstruction of the intestines. Emergency surgery is typically required to treat these complications.