Symptoms of a Hiatal Hernia

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Symptoms of a hiatal hernia, also known as a stomach hernia, may include heartburn, abdominal discomfort, throat irritation, belching, and regurgitation. However, as many as 90% of people who have a stomach hernia will not experience any symptoms. 

While hiatal hernia symptoms can be aggravating, they are usually not serious.

This article explains common symptoms of a hiatal hernia as well as rare complications and signs you should see your healthcare provider or seek emergency treatment.

A stomach hernia most often affects people over the age of 50.

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Frequent Hiatal Hernia Symptoms

Typically, a small hiatal hernia may not cause any symptoms. However, a larger hiatal hernia can change the structures and mechanisms that keep food and acids where they belong.

This can lead to symptoms such as:

When a hiatal hernia occurs, it can change the position of a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This allows the contents of the stomach to back-flow into the esophagus (known as reflux), which can lead to symptoms.

Generally speaking, problems only occur when a hernia becomes enlarged. If the LES weakens, which can happen with age, symptoms will get progressively worse.

People with a hiatal hernia are more likely to develop gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a long-term form of reflux that can interfere with your quality of life.

The persistence of GERD symptoms can lead to a chronic cough, chest pain, asthma, and progressive damage to your tooth enamel.

Complications

Broadly speaking, there are two types of hiatal hernia: a sliding hiatal hernia and a paraesophageal hernia. While a sliding hernia is the most common, accounting for around 95% of all diagnoses, a paraesophageal hernia is potentially more serious and related to complications.

To understand the problems that could potentially develop with a hernia, it helps to have an idea of what a hernia is:

  • With a sliding hiatal hernia, the junction of the esophagus and stomach (referred to as the gastroesophageal junction) will protrude through a hole in the diaphragm, called the hiatus. This is the space through which the esophagus passes. It is called "sliding” because the herniated part of the stomach can slide in and out of the chest cavity as you swallow.
  • With a paraesophageal hernia, the stomach bulges into the chest. While many paraesophageal hernias are a progression of a sliding hernia, others can occur suddenly if there is a structural weakness in the diaphragm.

Unlike a sliding hernia, a paraesophageal hernia doesn't readily slide in and out of the hiatus. Rather, it can get progressively larger and slip even further into the chest cavity as time goes by. It is at this later stage that the complications can become serious and, in rare cases, life-threatening.

Complications may include:

  • Esophageal compression
  • Gastric obstruction
  • Strangulation
  • Intrathoracic stomach, an extremely rare condition

Esophageal Compression

Compression of the esophagus can occur as the hernia presses against the esophageal wall. When this happens, food can get stuck in the esophagus, causing chest pain after eating and difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).

While esophageal compression is not considered a medical emergency, it may require medications to alleviate or prevent worsening symptoms.

Incarcerated Hiatal Hernia

Incarceration occurs when the herniated portion of the stomach becomes trapped in the hiatus. In some cases, the symptoms of incarceration may be long-term but minimal (mostly a sensation of chest pressure as food passes through the upper digestive tract). But, it can cause obstruction or impede blood circulation.

Incarceration itself is not a medical emergency unless there's a severe obstruction.

Volvulus

Volvulus is when a herniated stomach twists more than 180 degrees, causing a severe gastric obstruction. While it can occur with hiatal hernia, it can also occur without it and is very uncommon.

Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Chest pain after eating
  • Belching
  • Vomiting

If this problem progresses, it can cause upper abdominal pain and distention, vomiting leading to nonproductive retching, and gastric bleeding (due to the abnormally increased blood pressure).

Acute symptomatic volvulus generally occurs in people over age 50 and is considered a medical emergency with a 30% to 50% risk of mortality.

Strangulation

Strangulation is a cut-off of the blood supply to the stomach, either due to volvulus or incarceration. Symptoms include:

  • A sudden, sharp chest pain
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Bloating
  • Vomiting
  • An inability to pass gas
  • Constipation
  • Warmth or redness over the herniation
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Bloody or tarry stools (due to gastrointestinal bleeding)

This is considered a medical emergency as the blockage can result in rapid organ damage. If not treated immediately, strangulation can lead to gangrene, shock, and death.

Intrathoracic Stomach

An intrathoracic stomach is a rare condition in which the stomach slips entirely into the chest cavity. Not all cases cause symptoms, but the most common signs are dyspnea (shortness of breath) and a feeling of chest fullness and pressure.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Retching
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Aspiration pneumonia, which is caused when food is coughed up into the lungs

The enlarged hiatal gap can cause other organs to slip into the chest cavity, including the pancreas, liver, or colon. Surgery is the only means to correct this rare but serious complication.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Hiatal hernias generally do not need to be medically managed unless the symptoms are getting worse or are persistent. You should see your healthcare provider if your hiatal hernia symptoms don't improve despite conservative management.

The vast majority of hiatal hernia symptoms can be easily managed with over-the-counter medications, weight loss, and an adjustment to your diet. In some cases, you may need to adjust your prescription drugs.

Hiatal Hernia Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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When to Seek Emergency Care

You should seek immediate medical care if:

  • Reflux symptoms are accompanied by high fever (over 100.4 degrees)
  • You have severe chest pain
  • Your heart rate is rapid (100 beats per minute or higher)
  • You experience non-productive retching
  • Your stools are bloody

These may be the signs of a severe and potentially life-threatening hernial complication.

Summary

A hiatal or stomach hernia is a common problem, especially for adults over 50. Common symptoms include chest pain, irritation in the throat, belching, and regurgitation. 

If a hernia becomes enlarged and slips into the chest cavity, you may experience serious health complications that require immediate medical attention. If you have a high fever, severe chest pain, a rapid heart rate, bloody stool, or dry heaves, go to an emergency room for treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the main cause of hiatal hernia?

    Hiatal hernias may occur if the diaphragm muscle has been weakened. This can happen because of trauma and certain conditions, however, some individuals may also be born with a hiatal hernia.

  • What causes symptoms of hiatal hernia to get worse?

    Symptoms can be worsened by eating foods that trigger gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), eating large meals, lying down after eating, and stress.

  • What foods trigger hiatal hernia?

    If you have a hiatal hernia, avoid food that is fatty, oily, highly acidic, or processed. Also avoid citrus fruits such as oranges or limes, which can cause irritation.

  • What happens if hiatal hernia is left untreated?

    You may experience complications if symptoms worsen or develop and you don't seek treatment. In some cases, an untreated hiatal hernia can lead to a medical emergency.

  • Where is hiatal hernia pain located?

    A hiatal hernia may cause chest and abdominal discomfort. That said, up to 90% of people with a hiatal hernia won't experience symptoms. Emergency treatment is rarely needed.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Sharon Gillson
 Sharon Gillson is a writer living with and covering GERD and other digestive issues.