Hernia Recovery and Prevention for Grapplers

A few weeks ago I wrote about getting an inguinal hernia on New Year’s Day and my subsequent surgery.

(For those of you who don’t know, this type of hernia is when your intestines start protruding through a weakness or tear in your abdominal wall and show up as a bulge on the outside of your belly. These hernias may become strangulated, painful and infected, and if untreated might even kill you!)

First of all, thank you very much to all those who got in touch with wishes of a speedy and complete recovery. I’m happy to say that I’m doing great – I’ve even had a couple of light sparring sessions which was a ton of fun after 6 weeks away from the mats!

I’ve also received some emails with questions about hernias. To my knowledge this subject has never been addressed in the context of BJJ or submission grappling. So long as everybody understands that I AM NOT A DOCTOR I’ll take a stab at answering some of these questions:

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Q: How long does it take to recover from hernia surgery and get back to BJJ and grappling?

A: Well, predictably the answer is “it depends.” As far as I can figure out, it depends on a number of factors, including

  • what type of hernia you have (inguinal, femoral, umbilical, etc.) and how bad it is,
  • what type of surgery you had to repair it (synthetic mesh, internal stitches, etc.),
  • what your fitness level was prior to the injury,
  • whether there were any complications during or after surgery (hemorrhage, infection, etc.)
  • etc.

And sometimes you get conflicting information. For example, when I checked out of the hospital a nurse handed me a pamphlet with instructions not to lift more than 10 pounds for 4 to 6 weeks!

I was very surprised, therefore, when I visited the surgeon for a followup visit and told me that I could get back to FULL activity even though only 2 weeks had gone by since the surgery. He said that the 4 to 6 week rest period recommended by the pamphet was based on old surgical techniques.

So the bottom line is that recovery times seem to be getting a lot shorter (especially for mesh-based surgeries), but YOU REALLY NEED TO TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR OR SURGEON before getting back to training of any kind!

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Q: What was your post-surgery workout and rehab schedule like?

A:Here’s my rough schedule so far:

  1. For the first two weeks after surgery I did absolutely NOTHING.
  2. After two weeks I got the OK to ‘get back to everything’ from my surgeon. Frankly this sounded a bit over-optimistic, and I decided on a gradual back-to-grappling program.
  3. For the next week I only did light bodyweight exercises and light BJJ technique drilling with a considerate partner.
  4. Then I did a week of light circuit training with weights (i.e. no heavy squats or deadlifts) and continued with the light partner drilling
  5. A month post-surgery I’m in a phase of doing slightly heavier weight training (still no squatting with more than 245 lbs though), a bit of running, and some easy sparring with people at least 10 lbs lighter than me

As I’ve said before, I’m determined NOT to get re-injured (or get a different injury) during this post-surgery comeback, so I’m actually being pretty disciplined about not doing too much, too soon.

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Q: If a fit guy like you can get a hernia, what about the rest of us? How can we prevent hernias?

A: Well there are a lot of different types of hernias. As I understand it, prevention depends on the exact type of hernia that you’re talking about.

I had what is known as a direct inguinal hernia, which has a strong genetic component. A family history of this condition means that you’re more likely to get it too (and, in fact, my Dad had a hernia surgery a couple of years ago).

It’s clear that picking the right parents is probably the best way to avoid these types of hernias.

On the other hand, some other types of hernias are more related to excessive body weight and/or lack of muscle tone. Staying fit, avoiding obesity and keeping your abdominal wall strong through exercise is probably your best bet to avoid these types of ‘lifestyle’ hernias.

I’m just so very very glad that I had the mostly-genetic type of hernia, because of the saving face factor. I know I’d never live it down if I’d come down with an optional lifestyle hernia….

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