Non operative/watchful waiting in the management of inguinal hernias

Ardvreck Castle
On occasion you may not wish to consider an operation to fix the hernia.
There are a number of reasons to decide to pursue a non-operative/non-surgical approach including the following
  • Other medical problems may mean that you are not really fit enough for surgery (although many groin hernias can be fixed under local anaesthetic, some abdominal, incisional or recurrent hernias may require a general anaesthetic. This is especially the case if a laparoscopic or keyhole approach is required. Medical problems such as a recent heart attack may also influence your decision to consider surgery
  • The hernia may be small and causing minimal or no symptoms (e.g. up to one third of patients with an inguinal hernia have no symptoms from the hernia)
  • It may be socially inconvenient to undergo surgery e.g. travel plans
  • Other medical issues need to take priority e.g. other surgeries such as a hip or knee replacement may need to take priority
  • Anxiety about the prospect of surgery or potential short or long-term complications of repair of the hernia

Consulting with surgeon about alternatives to surgery

Although it is reasonable to consider such an approach in specific circumstances, it is important to remember that a hernia simply not go away on it’s own. Treatments such as supports, trusses, avoiding straining or specific exercises etc sound attractive but have no impact on the actual hernia. The tear or defect in the muscle of the abdominal wall will not repair itself. Most abdominal wall hernias tend to increase in size with time. Many abdominal hernias and most inguinal/groin hernias can also be repaired under local anaesthetic which may be the best option for patients with other medical problems.

 It is reasonable to adopt a “watch and wait” approach in the following circumstances

  • The hernia is not causing any symptoms or pain
  • It is relatively small in size
  • It is not obviously getting bigger over time
  • It goes back in (reduces) easily

This approach is also called “watchful waiting”. As with most things in life, there are benefits and risks to adopting such an approach and similarly there are risks and benefits to surgical repair of the hernia. It is generally helpful to discuss these options with your surgeon before you take a decision not to undergo surgical repair. However, the risk of developing an acute problem in a small hernia that is not causing any symptoms is very low (2 per 1000 patients per year).

Although rare, patients who adopt a watch and wait approach should be aware of the symptoms and signs of incarceration or obstruction.

Incarcerated hernias may cause sudden or constant pain in the hernia, nausea, vomiting and abdominal distension. Incarceration means that they hernia can no longer be reduced or pushed back into place. This can lead to blockage of the intestine within the hernia. If severe, it may also cut off the blood supply to the intestine. If this occurs, it is called a strangulated hernia. This is a medical emergency and strangulation hernia requires immediate surgery. As one might expect, repairing a hernia before it becomes incarcerated or strangulated is easier, safer and has fewer short and long-term complications of surgery compared to repair of an incarcerated or strangulated hernia which can be a very major operation.

You should also re-consult your doctor if the hernia is getting bigger or you start to get discomfort in the hernia or if the hernia does not easily go back in when lying down.

What to do if you decide not to proceed with an operation

  • Avoid heavy physical activity such as heavy lifting or straining.
  • Avoid constipation.
  • A truss may provide some support. Unfortunately, however, many trusses apply pressure on the hernia with a view to keeping the hernia in place. They almost never succeed in controlling the hernia in place and not infrequently depression is applied in fact stops hernia from reducing or going back in. It is also important not to consider using a truss as a long-term solution as they sustain pressure her only can lead to inflammation and thinning of the muscles rather than helping me make the situation worse over time.

Research suggests that over time, many patients with small hernias that are not causing symptoms (who decide not to undergo surgery) will develop problems and pain in the hernia over time and many will ultimately choose to undergo planned repair of their hernias.

Scientific evidence supporting a watch and wait approach to managing inguinal hernias

Two important studies have addrssed the safety and wisedom of adopting a non operative approach to asymptomatic inguinal hernias. One of the these was performed in Glasgow and the second was a multi-centre study from North America.

The North American study (Fitzgibbons 2006) randomised 720 men to surgical repair or watchful waiting.

Patients were initially followed up for a period of 2 to 4.5 years although the authors subsequently reported on their longer term follow-up on the same group of patients. The main outcome measures were pain and discomfort interfering with normal activity and an assessment of their physical activity at two years after diagnosis. There were no significant differences in pain or discomfort of physical activity between the two groups after two years. 23% patients who were assigned to a watchful waiting approach crossed over to undergo surgical repair within 2 years.(usually because they complained of an increase in pain in the hernia). These patients reported a reduction in pain after their hernia was fixed.

After 2 years of follow-up, 17% of patients who were initially selected to undergo surgery decided to stay within their watchful waiting group. In total, 31% of patients in watchful waiting room had asked to undergone surgery by the end of the study (patients were followed up from a period of 2 to 4.5 years). Only one patient experienced acute hernia incarceration within two years and the second patient had incarceration and bowel obstruction after four years of follow-up in the watchful waiting group. It was estimated that the risk of having an acute problem was around 1.8 per 1000 patient years. The authors concluded that watchful waiting approach was an acceptable option for men with minimally symptomatic in one hernias. Delaying surgery until symptoms increase was safe because the risk of acute problems is very low.

The same authors reported on longer term follow-up of the same group of patients (Fitzgibbons 2013). In this study there was an additional seven years of follow-up. In total 68% of patients who had been randomised to the watchful waiting group eventually underwent surgery. The most common reason for patients deciding to ultimately undergo surgery was the development of pain. Older men (greater than 65 years) were at higher risk compared to younger men. In total three patients of the study group to undergo emergency surgery for an incarcerated hernia.

It is therefore very likely that patients who elect to undergo watchful waiting will ultimately come to surgery. In this study with a follow-up between seven and 11.5 years, nearly 70% of patients who were treated conservatively but what will ultimately underwent surgery. However it does suggest that it is a safe plan and these patients with minimally symptomatic hernias are unlikely to come to harm by not undergoing surgery immediately.

The Glasgow study was initially published in the same year as the North American study (O’Dwyer 2006). A total of 160 patients were randomised to repair of any hernia or adopting a watch and see policy. After 12 months of follow-up there were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of pain scores at rest or unmoving. There was a trend towards a slight improvement in quality of life in patients who underwent surgery. Within one year nearly 20% of patients with them randomised to the watch and see policy had undergone repair of the hernia, primarily because of the development of pain. Europe has concluded that repair RNA symptomatic inguinal hernia does not affect the rate of long-term chronic pain and it may have some beneficial effects in improving overall health and reducing the risk of serious morbidity.

The authors publish their longer term follow-up of the same group of patients in 2011. After a median follow-up of 7.5 years, 42 of the 160 patients in the study (26%) had died (equal numbers in the treatment – surgery and observation group. They calculated the conversion rates from a watch and wait policy and estimated these to be around 16% at one year, 54% at five years and 72% at 7.5 years. As with the American study the main reason for a conversion to surgery was pain. To patients presented with an acute hernia. In 16 patients, a new hernia on the opposite side developed.

As with the American study, the conclusion was that most patients were painless inguinal hernia will develop symptoms over time. Is therefore thought that surgical repair is the recommended treatment for medically fit patients with a painless hernia.


Fitzgibbons RJ Jr, Giobbie-Hurder A, Gibbs JO, et al. Watchful waiting vs repair of inguinal hernia in minimally symptomatic men: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 200618; 295(3):285-92.

Fitzgibbons RJ Jr, Ramanan B, Arya S, et al. Long-term results of a randomized controlled trial of a nonoperative strategy (watchful waiting) for men with minimally symptomatic inguinal hernias. Ann Surg. 2013; 258(3):508-15.

Chung L, Norrie J, O’Dwyer PJ. Long-term follow-up of patients with a painless inguinal hernia from a randomized clinical trial. Br J Surg. 2011; 98(4):596-56.

O’Dwyer PJ, Norrie J, Alani A, et al. Observation or operation for patients with an asymptomatic inguinal hernia: a randomized clinical trial. Ann Surg. 2006; 244(2):167-73.