Every hernia has a story. This is mine

In 1988 I completed a very stressful buyout of my business partners and treated myself to a week in Marrakesh with a couple of pals. After a particularly wild night out that ended well after dawn, we did penance by working out in the hotel gym, when I nearly collapsed. The stress of the business had brought me low and the partying was the final nail in the coffin of my health. The plan had been to relax and recuperate, but it didn’t work out that way. Marrakech is a dusty town and I started to cough as well as feel rotten. I had a cough that ran right through the winter and I saw an acupuncturist and a Chinese herbalist to help recover my health. I drank lots of Pei Pa Koa, a syrupy concoction that suppresses the cough, but still it persisted. I got lots of bed rest and tried to stop coughing. Both the acupuncturist and the herbalist diagnosed weak kidney energy and associated this with the coughing. They also both asked me if I had a lot of sex ‘as a younger man’. (The truth of the matter was that, after my marriage broke up in 1985, I was a hot single and had more sex in the next few years than I had ever imagined possible).

In June 1989 I joined a gym to help build up my strength again and a trainer took me through the gym machinery. Then, when I told her I was going to Boston in a few weeks, gave me some exercises that I could do in my hotel room. When I got to Boston I did the exercises.

I had flown to Boston with a couple of suitcases full of samples of jam, peanut butter and other products for a meeting with the buyer at Bread & Circus’ buying office. They had a dozen natural and organic supermarkets in New England and were soon to become part of Whole Foods Market.

My first hernia pangs

On my way to the meeting, as I emerged from the elevator, the wheel on my suitcase stuck in the grooves of the sliding door of the elevator. I pulled and felt a tug in my groin. I checked out and lifted the jam-laden suitcases into the back of the rental car. Another tug and a pang of pain. The meeting went fine and I went on to Pittsburgh and a family reunion. I suspected I had a hernia, but in the early stages it’s not always immediately easy to tell, as it can naturally resolve itself, often for days on end and can be quite a tiny bulge at the beginning.

The main cause of hernia that needs operation is neglect of the injury. If you broke your arm, you’d get it set so that the bones could fuse together. You would not allow the arm to dangle and then periodically try to use it for some minor task. The sooner you get it in a cast and leave it to allow nature to carry out the healing process, the more likely it is to be successfully cured.

Don’t let a hernia deteriorate

Yet most people who develop a hernia allow it to deteriorate. It can take days or even weeks before the weakness opens more and more under the downward pressure from the abdomen and becomes a permanent hernia. The way to ‘set’ a hernia is to apply a well-fitting support garment immediately, ensuring that it stops any bulge emerging, but without widening the gap from the outside. It is quite surprising how many supports actually enlarge the hernia — which is an internal weakness — by pushing inwards and enlarging the gap from the outside. Every man should have a support garment ready to hand or readily available in the event that a hernia occurs, as vital time and hassle can be avoided by minimising the size of the hernia. All hernias have the potential to be reduced in size and eventually cured, unless they have been caused by traumatic external injury or been subjected to surgical procedures. Once the knife has gone in the possibility of a natural cure is gone forever. (That said, many operations do not fail and do not lead to pain or numbness, so choosing surgery can be a realistic option, but everyone should be aware of the complications which include numbness, persistent pain and the possibility of recurrence of the hernia).

My self-diagnosis is confirmed

No doubt my several months of heavy coughing had put enough undue stress on the internal wall of my abdomen, to allow a hernia bulge to emerge. While having a life insurance medical I mentioned it to the doctor who confirmed the diagnosis and advised an operation as soon as possible. He also advised me not to wear a support (“horrible things, all springs and straps, more trouble than they’re worth”).

But I did go to John, Bell and Croydon, chemists on Wigmore Street in London and was fitted for a support — the standard British National Health Service official model. It was an ungainly leather and canvas fabric construction with an egg-shaped pad that pressed snugly in the hernia hollow. The kindly and portly West Indian woman who fitted me and was supposed to show me how to wear it was so fastidiously “appropriate” in her touching that I got no real training in how to use it. In fact it was a lousy fit, but she probably spent her whole life thinking she was helping people when the opposite was more likely the case. Had it been an elbow support or a hearing aid then she could have demonstrated its use in a way that she couldn’t effectively do with something that was that so close to my genitals.

This modesty about hernias springs from a confusion of function between digestion and sex. The sexual organs adjoin the inguinal region where inguinal hernias occur. But the inguinal region has little to do with sex, except that spermatic tubes pass through it on their way from the testicles to the penis. Nonetheless, men who develop a hernia feel that it diminishes them sexually. And it certainly can be a bit disconcerting to have your hernia out and making squishy intestinal noises as you’re banging on her tummy.

My hernia disappears

Then in January 1990 I went to Belize with some friends and family. It was Christmas Day and we were walking across Belize City from our rooms at the wood-framed Mopan Hotel. It was hot and the John Bell and Croydon support was chafing and the hernia seemed to be gone. So I tried not wearing it and we walked all the way, a good two miles, to the restaurant and my hernia didn’t emerge at all — it seemed like it had just ceased to exist. It was the best Christmas present I could have asked for. But, after dinner, on the way back, it started to throb and then to re-emerge. I held it in with my fingers through my pockets until we got back to the hotel and I could put on my support again. This was the first of many incidents where I pushed for quick results and thought that a few hours or a day of remission was a cure.

On subsequent occasions my hernia would disappear completely for 6 or 7 hours. These sessions and the time in Belize convinced me that the hernia was cureable. Every time it disappeared it showed that it was a question of muscular tone rather than a genuine wound.

I embark on self-treatment

So in June 1991 I went to Shrubland Hall Health Clinic and I underwent a 5 day fast. Apart from liquids, nothing entered my digestive system. I also did Pilates training for 45 minutes each day, strengthening my lower abdomen, my legs, my obliques and the whole complicated network of tendons, ligaments and muscles that hold our bodies together. Most of the time there was no hernia. I went for walks in the beautiful gardens and grounds of Shrubland Hall wearing no support and suffering no discomfort. Occasionally the hernia would re-emerge and I would make my way straight back to the hall and put my support on for the rest of the day.

This was a pattern I was to repeat for another 14 years, with unsuitable supports and false dawns where I tested the limits of the ‘cure’ until the hernia reappeared.

Hernia benefits

There were benefits, too. A former philanderer, having a hernia helped keep me faithful to my new girl friend. I settled into a relationship with her and we married in the autumn of 1991 and went on a honeymoon to Thailand. At the Aman Puri resort I found again that I could dispense with the support for long periods before a slight bulge and a dull throb told me it was time to put it on again. I often wonder if, had I been more patient, the hernia might have resolved then and there, but I was always rushing nature’s course.

Stress re-emerges

Then my business career hotted up. Cash flow problems, being let down by management who failed to justify the trust that I put in them — all this and more took my eye off the cure. I concentrated on the business, working late into the night to save the business that I had built up since the 1960s. The hernia had to take second place in my life as I focused on economic survival.

I grow herbs and find the perfect hernia support

After trying various inadequate truss contraptions, most of which had a pad so large that it would push in from the outside and do what doctors call ‘invaginate’ (worsen) the opening of the hernia, I found a support invented by Trevor Walker that fitted well and firmly held the hernia in place. It had cleverly designed flat pads, which did not enlarge the hole from the outside.

I also grew herbs which could help heal my hernia, such as fennel and herniaria. I grew English comfrey instead of Russian comfrey, so that I could enjoy the benefits of this herb without exposing myself to pyrrholizidine compounds. I made up herbal tinctures and teas from recipes in Culpeper. I had a 19th century manual from the Bilz Clinik in Germany and engaged in their recommended programme of body toning to reverse the deterioration of which the hernia is the final sign. It was encouraging to read that, before surgery became the preferred option, curing a hernia without surgery was considered commonplace in many European healing centres.

I decide on surgery

Every year I made a resolution that if the hernia was not cured by the end of that year I would have the operation. This was meant to encourage commitment to cure but all it did was encourage procrastination. The deadline came and went, usually with a gross display of overeating at the year end that did nothing to relieve the pressure on the hernia.

Finally, in 2005, I was ready to go for it. I had investigated the various operations and decided to go to Toronto to the Shouldice Clinic, where they do nothing but non-mesh surgical repair of hernias and where they claim a less than 1% recurrence rate. I was planning a trip to visit relatives in Iowa and Pennsylvania in April 2006 and I marked out a week to go to the clinic, have the operation, then recuperate with relatives in nearby Pittsburgh. However, the doctor who was advising me failed to reply to an email I sent in which I asked about the likelihood of intractable post-operative pain. Getting no answer made me nervous. This was my last chance for a natural cure. I cancelled the operation and embarked on a much more serious self-help programme.

My daily schedule

  • I put my support on as soon as I got up in the morning and never removed it until bedtime.
  • In the night, if I needed to urinate, I would sit on the bidet, so that I was not standing having a pee without a support on.
  • I ate no breakfast, a light lunch and had my evening meal before 8 p.m.
  • I had a regular 1½ hour Pilates training session every Monday and did a couple of ½ hour sessions on my own during the week.
  • I took a 45 minute walk every day, rain or shine
  • I got my own Dyna Band and used it for at least 10 minutes on the days when I did not do Pilates
  • I would, from time to time, take a teaspoonful of so of tincture of herniaria or tormentil herb.
  • I would eat comfrey roots and stalks intermittently and drank fennel tea whenever I wasn’t having the real stuff and ate fennel whenever it was available, grated in salad or braised or baked.
  • I purchased and applied, on a twice daily basis, Baume Phoenicienne, a blend of herbal oils and extracts derived from ancient Arabic medicinal texts that prescribe it externally for hernia.
  • I also had deep penetrative sports massage every 3 weeks to get rid of accretions of scar tissue in my neck and shoulders from whiplash injuries. The ‘coat hanger’ function of my shoulders was impaired by this scar tissue and led to irregular posture which made balancing my abdominal muscles difficult.

I finally achieve a cure

By May 2005 my hernia had gone. This time I wasn’t going to be fooled, or foolish. I kept on religiously wearing my support, noting that on my trips to the bathroom there was no sign of hernia. I could pee standing up with no bulge. Then I went for very short walks without the support — no hernia. Then I walked all the way to the beach, a 5-minute walk, and had a swim. No hernia, but the retraction of my balls created pressure from the inside, so I kept wearing the support when I went swimming. By October I dared to go for an entire day without the support. I went for a 2-mile walk and all was well. I was cured, but I continued to play it safe: if I was going somewhere I might end up going for a long walk or exerting myself, I wore the support. But on managed little trips it stayed in the drawer. Finally at the end of October I went to Shrublands and spent a week walking in the countryside, swimming in the pool, having a daily Pilates class and just relaxing and concentrating on abdominal strength and good posture. I took a support along, just in case, but it was never needed.

My advice to men with hernias

My downloadable booklet the Hernia Bible describes in more detail precisely what I did to cure my hernia. The great tragedy is that many hernias are allowed to degenerate to the point where only surgery can resolve the problem. I hope that, with this book, sufferers of a hernia can ‘nip it in the bud’ and, with an appropriate support, exercises and other treatments, resolve the problem without allowing it to get worse. There is absolutely no reason why a hernia cannot be cured in a matter of months, as long as you

  • Get it diagnosed immediately
  • Get a support that fits and does not invaginate the hernia (get several so that you can change them and wash them regularly)
  • Practise the dietary and herbal recommendations outlined in this website and described in more detail in the Hernia Bible.
  • Do the exercises and make sure you take a good steady walk every day – there is nothing like walking for strengthening the lower abdomen.

If I had such a book in 1989 my hernia would have been cured by 1990. I had to work all this out for myself. I knew there were times when my hernia disappeared ‘miraculously’ for short periods, so I knew that there had to be a way to extend those periods.

I have a drawer in a dresser that contains a dozen hernia support garments, some rather tired out, the elastic shot to hell, two still in their original packaging. I am not so arrogant as to throw them away. My hernia may recur, but if it does, I won’t have to have an operation, scars, complications. I’ll just apply the technique that I know will work and get it sorted out in a matter of days, weeks or, at most, months. It’s a hassle, it costs more, your health insurance won’t cover it, your sex life will suffer (albeit just in the short term) and you may have to institute some lifestyle changes that you find cramp your style, but believe me, it’s worth it to have your body back, whole, functioning and fit, instead of walking around with scars, baggy guts and a lifetime of potential complications, further surgery and eventually those dreaded words: ‘There’s nothing more we can do for you – but these new painkillers should help reduce the agony.’

Another cure story

To confirm that my recovery wasn’t a fluke, I put the word about and in January 2006 found a man in his 50s called Roy who came to my Monday Pilates session. He wore the recommended support, rubbed on the oil and did a daily Pilates session with his wife. In July he ran the Iron Man triathlon without the support and with no sign of a bulge from his former hernia. His name is Roy and his story is here.

I hope very much that one day this site will be full of successful stories of a similar nature. Keep us posted!