What are the long-term effects of hernia surgery?

Hernia surgery is a common procedure to repair a bulge or tear in the abdominal muscles. While hernia repair often successfully relieves pain and discomfort, some patients experience long-term effects after surgery. Understanding the potential long-term impacts can help patients make informed decisions about hernia treatment options.

Does hernia mesh cause complications years later?

For many hernia repairs, surgeons implant a mesh patch to reinforce the abdominal wall and reduce the risk of recurrence. In most cases, mesh placement is complication-free. However, some patients develop chronic pain, infection, mesh erosion, or other issues years after their operation.

One of the most concerning long-term risks is mesh migration or shrinkage. Over time, the mesh patch may detach from tissue and migrate to other areas. Portions of the mesh could also shrink or fold in on itself. If the mesh distorts significantly, it can obstruct organs, nerves, and tissues. This may cause pain, infection, and other complications that require revision surgery.

Another potential effect of mesh hernia repair is chronic neuropathic pain. This occurs when mesh placement severs or compresses nerves in the abdominal wall. Nerve damage can lead to burning, shooting, or throbbing pain that persists long after the initial surgery site has healed.

Can hernia repair lead to testicular pain later on?

For men undergoing inguinal hernia surgery, there is a risk of developing chronic testicular or groin pain. Inguinal repairs involve making incisions near the inguinal canal, which contains nerves and blood vessels connected to the testicles.

If these structures sustain damage during initial hernia surgery, it may result in painful complications down the road. Some patients experience testicular pain or sensitivity years after their groin hernia is repaired.

The risk of chronic groin pain is increased for hernia operations utilizing mesh repair. The mesh patch could adhere to the spermatic cord, constricting blood flow to the testicles. Mesh may also irritate adjacent nerves, potentially causing chronic neuropathic pain.

Can hernia repair cause fertility issues?

In rare cases, inguinal hernia surgery may impact male fertility. This could occur if the repair damages the vas deferens, which are ducts that transport sperm. However, most studies show hernia repairs – even those utilizing mesh – do not significantly impair sperm health or count.

One exception is hernia surgery using a technique called laparoscopic transabdominal preperitoneal repair (TAPP). During TAPP, surgeons insert mesh through the abdomen using minimally invasive tools. Research indicates TAPP hernia repair can sometimes obstruct the vas deferens and negatively impact sperm motility.

If fertility is a concern prior to hernia surgery, patients should discuss options with their surgeon. Certain techniques may lower fertility risks compared to others.

Can hernia mesh erode into organs years later?

While very rare, hernia mesh has the potential to erode into adjacent organs long after implantation. Mesh erosion usually occurs gradually, as the mesh patch causes chronic inflammation and slowly penetrates the bowel, bladder, or surrounding abdominal structures.

Previous surgeries and bowel resection increase the risk for delayed mesh erosion. Patients may not have symptoms until years after their initial hernia repair. When symptoms do occur, they may include pain, infection, bowel obstruction, or abnormal bleeding from the rectum.

In many cases, the only way to resolve eroding mesh is through surgical removal. The associated risks and complications emphasize the importance of closely monitoring mesh implants long-term.

Can hernia repair cause chronic abdominal or groin pain?

Unfortunately, chronic pain is a relatively common outcome following hernia repairs – both with and without mesh. In one study, over 30% of patients reported persistent pain around the surgery site more than 3 years after open hernia repair.

The mechanisms for chronic post-hernia pain are complex. Possible factors include nerve trauma, mesh complications, mesh shrinkage, tissue inflammation, and scar tissue formation. Groin pain after inguinal hernia repair may stem from nerve injury or compression near the spermatic cord.

For mild discomfort, over-the-counter medication and physical therapy may help. Severe, debilitating pain sometimes requires revision surgery to remove problematic mesh or release compressed nerves. Preventing chronic pain is one benefit of laparoscopic hernia repair techniques.

Risk Factors for Chronic Pain After Hernia Surgery

  • Younger age at time of repair
  • Females
  • Open surgical method vs laparoscopic
  • Pre-existing pain before surgery
  • Using heavyweight/dense mesh
  • Mesh fixation method (tacks increase pain risk)
  • Multiple prior hernia repairs

Can hernia repair cause numbness or nerve problems?

Nerve-related complications can arise after hernia surgery if nearby nerves sustain damage. Sometimes nerve endings get severed or trapped in scar tissue during the original operation. Hernia mesh or fixation devices like tacks could also penetrate or compress regional nerves.

Common neurological side effects include:

  • Numbness around the surgery site
  • Pinched nerve feeling or shooting nerve pain
  • Loss of muscle control or strength
  • Hypersensitive skin
  • Reduced sensation in the upper thigh or groin

Mild neurological issues often resolve without intervention. More severe or debilitating symptoms may warrant revision surgery to detach the mesh from nerves. Proper identification and handling of nerves during the initial hernia repair can help minimize risks.

Can hernia repair mesh cause dysfunction years later?

Hernia mesh repairs are associated with several complications that could develop years post-surgery. These include:

  • Bowel obstructions – Mesh may attach to the intestines or bowel over time, twisting or squeezing portions that become obstructed. This can cause nausea, vomiting, constipation, and severe abdominal pain.
  • Fistulas – Abnormal connections can form between mesh and adjacent organs like the bowel or bladder, creating tunnels (fistulas) that should not exist. This may allow leakage of urine or stool through the skin.
  • Mesh rejection – As with any implanted foreign material, the body could recognize mesh as a foreign body and try to walled it off. This can cause inflammation, infection, and chronic pain.
  • Mesh shrinkage or contraction – Folding, wrinkling, or shrinkage of the mesh prosthesis can cause chronic pain and physical deformities years later.
  • Mesh migration – Over time, mesh could detach and shift away from the initial implantation site. Migration increases complications like obstruction, perforation, and adhesion formation.

In some cases, these issues require additional surgery to remove or reposition problematic mesh. Using mesh for hernia repair also makes future abdominal operations more complex.

Can hernia repair without mesh cause long-term effects?

While hernia mesh is associated with many complications, repairs without mesh also carry risks. Mesh-free repairs like primary suture closure have lower infection rates and fewer long-term chronic pain issues. However, these repairs have much higher hernia recurrence rates.

Recurrence rates after non-mesh surgical repairs may be up to 50% higher compared to mesh reinforcement techniques. Recurrent hernias usually occur within the first 3 years following repair but could develop up to 10 years later.

Patients with recurrent hernias often undergo additional operations to re-repair the compromised area. Multiple recurrent hernias and surgeries increase the risks for:

  • Chronic groin or abdominal pain
  • Wound infections
  • Scar tissue buildup
  • Mesh-related complications (if mesh is used to fix the recurrence)
  • Loss of tissue elasticity
  • Abdominal wall muscle weakness

When possible, most surgeons prefer to reinforce hernia repairs with mesh to lower recurrence likelihood. However, non-mesh options may be appropriate for some patients concerned about mesh-related complications.

Can hernia surgery cause reproductive health issues?

As discussed previously, inguinal hernia repairs can sometimes impact male fertility by damaging the vas deferens ducts. Fortunately, reduced fertility after hernia surgery is very uncommon. The overall risk is less than 1% following basic open or laparoscopic hernia repair in men.

For women, hernia surgery is extremely unlikely to affect reproductive health or fertility. The operation occurs in the abdominal wall away from the ovaries, uterus, and other internal reproductive organs.

Inguinal hernias and repairs in women are also much rarer than in men. There is almost no data linking standard hernia surgery techniques to reproductive issues in female patients.

Can hernia mesh increase cancer risk years later?

There is concern that hernia mesh could increase the chances of developing cancer decades after initial implantation. However, current evidence does not show a direct correlation between mesh placement and cancer formation.

Most published data evaluates mesh in relation to rare abdominal tumor types like sarcomas. Some theories suggest chronic inflammation from mesh could trigger mutations and increase cancer risk. But rates of sarcomas and other cancers do not appear significantly higher in patients with hernia mesh.

In the future, long-term studies tracking tens of thousands of patients could uncover links between mesh and cancer. But with current data, cancer does not seem to be a leading health concern associated with hernia mesh devices.

Can old hernia mesh be removed?

It is possible to surgically remove hernia mesh years after the initial repair. Mesh removal may be recommended if the implant erodes into organs, causes obstruction, leads to debilitating pain, or triggers other adverse effects.

The safest time for mesh removal is within 1 to 2 years of implantation before significant scar tissue forms around the material. After several years, mesh removal becomes more complex with higher risks. Dense adhesions make dissection difficult, and organs or tissue could sustain damage during the process.

In some cases, doctors determine risks of mesh removal after many years outweigh potential benefits. They may recommend leaving only a portion of troubling mesh behind. Mesh removal procedures are also not curative; hernias could recur at a later time.

How often does hernia repair require additional surgery?

Rate estimates for repeat hernia operations vary considerably:

  • Around 5-10% of patients require another surgery within 5 years due to recurrence or chronic complications.
  • Meshes with high shrinkage rates (like heavyweight polypropylene) have reoperation rates up to 20% at 5 years.
  • Large studies show a 1-2% rate of repeat surgery specifically for pain after hernia repair.
  • In England, over 13,000 hernia mesh removal procedures were performed from 2008-2018.

Factors making additional surgery more likely include open repair technique, mesh fixation method, and alternative mesh materials like polyester. Whenever possible, experts recommend initial laparoscopic repairs with mesh materials less prone to shrinking.

Reasons for Repeat Hernia Surgery

  • Recurrent hernia
  • Chronic pain
  • Mesh erosion into organs
  • Obstruction caused by mesh
  • Mesh infection
  • Mesh migration/detachment
  • Seroma fluid collection

When should hernia mesh be removed or replaced?

Hernia mesh removal or replacement surgery may be warranted if the mesh implant causes complications like:

  • Severe chronic pain unresponsive to conservative treatment
  • Significant shrinkage, wrinkling, or folding of mesh
  • Mesh detachment, migration, or erosion into organs confirmed by imaging
  • Infection of mesh implant
  • Obstruction or stricture caused by mesh
  • Fistula formation associated with mesh placement
  • Large seroma fluid collection around mesh
  • Severe testicular pain after inguinal hernia repair
  • Groin pain combined with reduced sensation in upper thigh/genitals

However, surgeons may opt not to remove stable mesh that is asymptomatic or only causing mild discomfort. In some situations, benefits of mesh removal after many years may not outweigh procedural risks.

What are signs of hernia mesh failure?

Symptoms that could indicate a long-term mesh issue include:

  • New pain, swelling, or bulging at the hernia repair site
  • Chronic severe pain that worsens over time
  • Pain during physical activity like coughing or bending
  • Tenderness, redness, warmth, or drainage at the surgery site
  • Nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, or abdominal pain
  • Recurrent constipation or difficulty urinating
  • Blood in the stool or urine
  • Visible skin rash or blisters near the hernia repair
  • Numbness/tingling around the surgery area

Imaging tests like CT scans or ultrasounds can help diagnose specific mesh complications. Any sudden, severe, or worsening symptoms near a hernia repair warrant urgent medical evaluation.

Can hernia mesh complications appear decades later?

Most chronic mesh complications tend to occur within the first 5 years after hernia surgery. However, issues like erosion, migration, obstruction, and recurrence could theoretically arise decades after the initial repair.

There are documented cases of patients experiencing severe mesh complications 15-20 years post-surgery. But very long-term data on hernia meshes is limited, as many devices are relatively new inventions.

It remains unclear how meshes will behave 20-30 years in the future. With so many variables involved, the “normal” lifespan for hernia mesh is difficult to predict. The potential for very delayed complications reinforces the importance of lifelong monitoring.

Should hernia mesh be routinely removed after a period of time?

There is no set recommendation for routine removal of hernia mesh several years after implantation. Considering the risks of repeat surgery, mesh removal is not advised unless complications appear.

Pre-emptive removal may be appropriate for:

  • Patients with unresolved chronic pain that seems related to the mesh
  • Cases where imaging shows mesh shrinkage or distortion
  • Individuals experiencing concerning symptoms possibly linked to their mesh implant
  • Younger patients concerned about lifelong risks from permanent mesh

These situations should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For older or asymptomatic patients, risks of prophylactic mesh removal likely outweigh any potential benefits.


While hernia repairs often provide long-term symptom relief, certain complications like chronic pain and mesh erosion can arise years after surgery. Close follow-up helps detect concerning mesh-related effects over time.

Minimally invasive approaches, lightweight mesh, absorbable tack fixation, and other best practices aim to reduce long-term risks following hernia surgery. Patients should share all symptoms or changes with their surgeon, even decades after the initial repair.

With prompt attention and management, most mesh-related complications will not severely impact quality of life long-term. For recurrent hernias or intractable pain, additional surgery to revise or remove previous mesh may offer relief.

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