• Clinical science

Internal hernia

Summary

An internal hernia is the protrusion of visceral contents through a congenital or acquired defect in the peritoneum or mesentery within the abdominal cavity. Internal hernias have an incidence of < 1% and are significantly less common than external hernias. Patients with a history of Roux-en-Y gastric bypass or liver transplant are especially at risk of internal hernia formation. Small bowel loops are the most common content of an internal hernia. For this reason, the typical clinical presentation is that of a mechanical small bowel obstruction (i.e., colicky abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, abdominal distention). Contrast-enhanced CT scan is the imaging modality of choice in most cases, but surgical intervention is often required for definitive diagnosis and treatment. Incarceration or strangulation of internal hernias carries a high mortality rate; rapid diagnosis and surgical repair is therefore imperative.

Epidemiology

References:[1]

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Etiology

Internal hernias are a protrusion of visceral contents through a defect in the peritoneum or the mesentery :

  • Congenital or acquired defect (e.g., postsurgical, especially following Roux-en-Y gastric bypass or liver transplant)
  • Normal anatomic structure (e.g., foramen of Winslow)

References:[2]

Clinical features

References:[1][3]

Diagnostics

  • Abdominal x-ray: nonspecific signs of bowel obstruction (e.g., distended loops of bowel, absent air in distal colon, air fluid levels proximal to obstruction)
  • CT scan (best initial and gold standard imaging modality)
  • Laparoscopy or laparotomy (confirmatory and therapeutic)

The diagnosis of an internal hernia is confirmed by laparoscopy in the majority of cases.
References:[3]

Differential diagnoses

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

Treatment

  • Conservative management
  • Surgery: either open or laparoscopic
    • Indications
      • Evidence of hemodynamic instability
      • Evidence of sepsis or peritonitis
      • No signs of improvement on conservative management
    • Procedure: reduction of the hernia and closure of the peritoneal or mesenteric defect

If an internal hernia leads to incarceration, the mortality rate is ∼ 80%!
References:[2]

  • 1. Martin LC, Merkle EM, Thompson WM. Review of internal hernias: radiographic and clinical findings. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2006; 186(3): pp. 703–717. doi: 10.2214/AJR.05.0644.
  • 2. Yeo CJ, Matthews JB, McFadden DW, Pemberton JH, Peters JH . Shackelford's Surgery of the Alimentary Tract. Elsevier Saunders; 2012.
  • 3. Radswiki, et al. Internal hernia. https://radiopaedia.org/articles/internal-hernia. Updated February 14, 2017. Accessed February 14, 2017.
last updated 11/28/2019
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