In both the UK and the USA the annual death rate due to inguinal and femoral hernia has decreased in the last two to three decades. In the UK, deaths for inguinal and femoral hernia declined from 22 to 55% respectively from 1975 to 1990. The annual deaths in the USA per 100,000 population for patients with hernia and intestinal obstruction decreased from 5.1 in 1968 to 3.0 in 1988. For inguinal hernia with obstruction, 88% of patients underwent surgery with a mortality rate of 0.05%. These figures could be interpreted as showing that elective groin hernia surgery has reduced overall mortality rates.
In support of this contention is the fact that strangulation rates are lower in the USA than in the UK, which could be a consequence of the three times higher rate of elective hernia surgery in the USA. Even so, the available statistics show that rates of elective hernia surgery in the USA per 100,000 population fell from 358 to 220 between 1975 and 1990, although this may be an artifact of the data collection systems rather than a real decline.
During the period 1991–1992, 210 deaths occurring following inguinal hernia repair and 120 deaths following femoral hernia repair were investigated by the UK National Confidential Enquiry Into Perioperative Deaths. This enquiry is concerned with the quality of delivery of surgery, anesthesia, and perioperative care. Expert advisers compare the records of patients who have died with index cases. In this group of 330 patients many were elderly (45 were aged 80–89 years) and significantly infirm unfit; 24 were ASA grade III and 21 ASA grade IV. Postoperative mortality was attributed to preexisting cardiorespiratory problems in the majority of cases. In a nationwide study in Denmark of 158 patients dying after acute groin hernia repair, Kjaergaard et al. also found that these patients were old (median age 83 years) and fragile (>80% with significant comorbidity), with frequent delay in diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Clearly this group of patients requires high-quality care by an experienced surgeon and anesthetist with skills equivalent to that of the ASA grade of the patient.
Postoperative care should necessarily take place in a high-dependency unit or intensive therapy unit; this may necessitate transfer of selected patients to appropriate hospitals and facilities. Sensible decisions must be made in consultation with relatives of extremely elderly, frail, or moribund patients to adopt a humane approach, which may rule out interventional surgery.
Forty percent of patients with femoral hernia are admitted as emergency cases with strangulation or incarceration, whereas only 3% of patients with direct inguinal hernias present with strangulation. This clearly has implications for the prioritization on waiting lists when these types of hernia present electively to outpatient clinics. A groin hernia is at its greatest risk of strangulation within 3 months of its onset. For inguinal hernia at 3 months after presentation, the cumulative probability of strangulation is 2.8%, rising to 4.5% after 2 years. For femoral hernia the risk is much higher, with a 22% probability of strangulation at 3 months after presentation rising to 45% at 21 months. Right-sided hernias strangulate more frequently than left-sided hernias; this is possibly related to mesenteric anatomy.
In a randomized trial, evaluating an expectative approach to minimally symptomatic inguinal hernias, Fitzgibbons et al. in the group of patients randomized to watchful waiting found a risk of an acute hernia episode of 1.8 in 1,000 patient years. In another trial, O’Dwyer and colleagues, randomizing patients with painless inguinal hernias to observation or operation, found two acute episodes in 80 patients randomized to observation. In both studies, a large percentage of patients randomized to nonoperative care were eventually operated due to symptoms. Neuhauser, who studied a population in Columbia where elective herniorrhaphy was virtually unobtainable, found an annual rate of strangulation of 0.29% for inguinal hernias.
Management of Strangulation
Diagnosis is based on symptoms and signs supplemented by diagnostic imaging when indicated. Pain over the hernia site is invariable, and obstruction with strangulation of intestine will cause colicky abdominal pain, distension, vomiting, and constipation. Physical examination may reveal degrees of dehydration with or without CNS depression, especially in the elderly if uremia is present, together with abdominal signs of intestinal obstruction. Femoral hernias can be easily missed, especially in the obese female, and a thorough examination should be performed in order to make the correct diagnosis. Frequently, however, physical examination alone is insuf fi ciently accurate to con fi rm the presence of a strangulating femoral hernia vs. lymphadenopathy vs. a lymph node abscess. In these instances, one may elect to perform radiographic studies such as an ultrasound or a CT scan on an urgent or emergent basis.
The choice of incision will depend on the type hernia if the diagnosis is confi dent. When the diagnosis is in doubt, a half Pfannenstiel incision 2 cm above the pubic ramus, extending laterally, will give an adequate approach to all types of femoral or inguinal hernia. The fundus of the hernia sac can then be approached and exposed and an incision made to expose the contents of the sac. This will allow determination of the viability of its contents. Nonviability will necessitate conversion of the transverse incision into a laparotomy incision followed by release of the constricting hernia ring, reduction of the contents of the sac, resection, and reanastomosis. Precautions should be taken to avoid contamination of the general peritoneal cavity by gangrenous bowel or intestinal contents. In the majority of cases, once the constriction of the hernia ring has been released, circulation to the intestine is reestablished and viability returns. Intestine that is initially dusky, aperistaltic, or dull in hue may pink up with a short period of warming with damp packs once the constriction band is released. If viability is doubtful, resection should be performed. Resection rates are highest for femoral or recurrent inguinal hernias and lowest for inguinal hernias. Other organs, such as bladder or omentum, should be resected, as the need requires. After peritoneal lavage and formal closure of the laparotomy incision, specific repair of the groin hernia defect should be performed. In this situation prosthetic mesh should not be used in an operative fi eld that has been contaminated and in which there is a relatively high risk of wound infection. The hernia repair should follow the general principles for elective hernia repair. It should be kept in mind, that in this group of predominantly frail and elderly patients with a very high postoperative mortality risk, the primary objective of the operation is to stop the vicious cycle of strangulation, and only secondary to repair the hernia defect.
The risk of an acute groin hernia episode is of particular relevance, when discussing indication for operation of painless or minimally symptomatic hernias. A sensible approach in groin hernias would be, in accordance with the guidelines from the European Hernia Society to advise a male patient, that the risk of an acute operation, with an easily reducible (“disappears when lying down”) inguinal hernia with little or no symptoms, is low and that the indication for operation in this instance is not absolute, but also inform, that usually the hernia after some time will cause symptoms, eventually leading to an operation. In contrast, female patients with a groin hernia, due to the high frequency of femoral hernias and a relatively high risk of acute hernia episodes, should usually be recommended an operation.