A diaphragmatic hernia is a birth defect in which there is an abnormal opening in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle between the chest and abdomen that helps you breathe. The opening allows part of the organs from the belly to move into the chest cavity near the lungs.
A diaphragmatic hernia is a rare defect. It occurs while the baby is developing in the womb. Because the diaphragm is not fully developed, organs, such as the stomach, small intestine, spleen, part of the liver, and the kidney, may take up part of the chest cavity.
CDH most often involves only one side of the diaphragm. It is more common on the left side. Often, the lung tissue and blood vessels in the area do not develop normally either. It is not clear if the diaphragmatic hernia causes the underdeveloped lung tissue and blood vessels, or the other way around.
40% of babies with this condition have other problems as well. Having a parent or sibling with the condition increases the risk.
Severe breathing problems almost always develop shortly after the baby is born. This is due in part to poor movement of the diaphragm muscle and crowding of the lung tissue. Problems with breathing and oxygen levels are often due to underdeveloped lung tissue and blood vessels as well.
Other symptoms include:
Exams and Tests
Fetal ultrasound may show abdominal organs in the chest cavity. The pregnant woman may have a large amount of amniotic fluid.
An exam of the infant shows:
- Irregular chest movements
- Lack of breath sounds on side with the hernia
- Bowel sounds that are heard in the chest
- Abdomen that looks less protuberant than a normal newborn's and feels less full when touched
A chest x-ray may show abdominal organs in the chest cavity.
A diaphragmatic hernia repair is an emergency that requires surgery. Surgery is done to place the abdominal organs into the proper position and repair the opening in the diaphragm.
The infant will need breathing support during the recovery period. Some infants are placed on a heart/lung bypass machine to help deliver enough oxygen to the body.
If a diaphragmatic hernia is diagnosed early during pregnancy (before 24 to 28 weeks), fetal surgery may be an option in some situations.
The outcome of surgery depends on how well the baby's lungs have developed. It also depends on whether there are any other congenital problems. Most often the outlook is good for infants who have a sufficient amount of working lung tissue and have no other problems.
Medical advances have made it possible for over half of infants with this condition to survive. The babies survived will often have ongoing challenges with breathing, feeding, and growth.
Complications may include:
- Lung infections
- Other congenital problems
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911). A diaphragmatic hernia is a surgical emergency.
There is no known prevention. Couples with a family history of this problem may want to seek genetic counseling.
Hernia - diaphragmatic; Congenital hernia of the diaphragm (CDH)
Carlo WA, Ambalavanan N. Respiratory tract disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 101.
Kearney RD, Lo MD. Neonatal resuscitation. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 164.
Tsao KJ, Lally KP. Congenital diaphragmatic hernia and eventration In: Holcomb GW, Murphy JP, Ostlie DJ, eds. Ashcraft's Pediatric Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 24.
Review Date 5/14/2017
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.