Background: Despite the fact that repair of an inguinal hernia is one of the most common operations performed in general surgery, we have very little information on the natural history of the untreated hernia. The aim of this study was to evaluate the association between hernia symptoms and the duration the patients had their hernias before presentation to a surgical outpatient department for an elective or emergency operation.
Study design: Data were gathered prospectively on a consecutive series of 699 patients admitted to two University Departments of Surgery for scheduled operations for an inguinal hernia.
Results: More than one third (267) of patients had their hernias for 1 year or longer, up to 65 years, before presentation. The most common symptom on presentation was pain or discomfort at the hernia site, which occurred in 457 (66%) patients. The cumulative probability of pain increased with time to almost 90% at 10 years. The hernia had become irreducible in 48 patients (6.9%). The cumulative probability of irreducibility increased from 6.5% (95% confidence interval 4% to 9%) at 12 months to 30% (95% confidence interval 18% to 42%) at 10 years. Leisure activities were affected in 29% of patients although only 13% of patients had to take time off work because of hernia-related symptoms. Only two patients (0.3%) required resection of infarcted bowel or omentum.
Conclusions: Because many patients with an inguinal hernia are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, prospective clinical trials to assess the role of operations for such hernias are required.