Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, just someone interested in self-care, anatomy, physiology, and wellness who is relating her personal experience working with her own issues. If you are in a similar situation, the techniques described below may or may not be helpful. Always pay attention to your body’s yes and no.
A couple of years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with chest pain. I didn’t know what it was. I sat up, just feeling it, trying to figure out what was causing it and whether I needed to call an ambulance. Heart attack was my big fear. From the top of my solar plexus, the pain ran through the middle of my chest underneath my sternum and up my throat. It was unpleasant.
It went away, and I went back to sleep. Although scary, it didn’t seem to be an emergency. I put it out of my mind and went about my business.
Then it happened again a couple of times, during the daytime. This seemingly random chest pain finally sent me to my doctor, who through testing was able to rule out heart disease, pancreatic issues, and stomach ulcer. She wanted me to go to a gastroenterologist and do a barium swallow with x-rays.
I just didn’t want to do that, and by then I had figured out that it was very likely a hiatal hernia.
So I began self-treating, starting with reading online. I learned:
- they are more common in older people
- obesity can be a factor
- acid reflux can be a factor
- overeating can make it worse
- you can avoid symptoms by not eating 2-3 hours before bedtime
- posture plays a role
Yes, even though I’m a yogi and usually have pretty good posture, I was sitting on my sofa using my laptop all hunched over for a few hours several times a week. My fix for that was to sit cross-legged with my back straight, with my laptop on a thick pillow.
I am 64, and although far from obese, I’ve put on a few pounds in the last few years. I’ve been guilty of eating late after a busy day and occasional overeating. I haven’t felt any symptoms of acid reflux, though, but I have another post coming about that (another issue that accompanies aging).
I learned more about the anatomy of a hiatal hernia. Simply put, the diaphragm separates your chest cavity from your abdominal cavity and moves when you breathe. The hiatus is a hole in your diaphragm where your esophagus passes through to your stomach. When the hole is enlarged, a little bit of your stomach can protrude upward through the hole, putting pressure on your esophagus and crowding your chest cavity. Thus…lying down or bending over with a full stomach brings the pain on.
There is reportedly no cure, and in severe cases, drugs or surgery may be needed.
My favorite quick relief for hiatal hernia pain? Drink a glass of water, 8 to 12 ounces. Then stand on your tiptoes and quickly drop your heels, repeating this several times. The weight of the water in your stomach combined with the quick downward motion will jostle your stomach out of the hiatus into its proper place beneath. I just found a video showing the technique.
I also read about yoga poses to avoid: cobra, inversions like downward facing dog, and other poses I was doing every day. This was a drag. I wasn’t liking this at all.
I still had occasional esophageal spasms and finally did get the barium swallow. The diagnosis confirmed my intuition: I have a small sliding hiatal hernia. Also I have a narrowing of my esophagus right above the diaphragm, which is another story also related to aging and acid reflux.
Not long after, I was at a craniosacral biodynamics class, which involves a lot of meditation. I suddenly had an insight that a yogic breathing practice I’d learned about decades ago called Breath of Fire (Sanskrit kapalabati or “skull shining breath”) might be helpful.
Watch this video if Breath of Fire is new to you. Actual instruction starts at 2:50.
I started doing Breath of Fire for a minute a day, worked up to 3, then 5, then 10 minutes, building strength and stamina while maintaining a steady rhythm.
The diaphragm is a muscle that can be strengthened like any other muscle. At first, I felt muscle soreness around the bottom of my rib cage, front, sides, and back, where the diaphragm attaches. (A good reason to slowly build repetitions.) After a few days, the soreness went away.
Not only does Breath of Fire strengthen your diaphragm, it also floods your body with oxygen, massages your organs, pumps your lymphatic system, and has other benefits. Since I started doing this three months ago, I’ve noticed a gradual increase in my energy, mental clarity, positivity, and motivation. I feel more on top of things and happier.
I now do Breath of Fire for 3 minutes every morning for maintenance, and I haven’t had any hernia symptoms since I started. I also do whatever yoga poses I want, without any problems. I’ve long been a hatha yogini, but now I’m interested in learning more kundalini, where this practice comes from.
It would take a truly amazing Western doctor to tell you to do this very simple technique, so I’m sharing. If you have a hiatal hernia and try these techniques, please share your experience in the comments.