Diaphragmatic hernia is a congenital defect in which an opening is present in the diaphragm (the partition separating the chest and abdominal cavities) at birth. This abnormal opening allows some of the organs typically found in the abdomen to move into the chest cavity.


© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

In infants born with diaphragmatic hernia, organs including the spleen, stomach, small intestine, part of the liver, and the kidney may be found in the chest cavity rather than in the abdomen. The lungs may also be abnormally developed.

Diaphragmatic hernia is a serious condition with many potential complications and side effects. However, the developments of technology and procedures have improved the survival rate to approximately 67%.


Diaphragmatic hernia is caused by a failure of the diaphragm to completely fuse during fetal development.

Diaphragmatic Hernia—Stomach and Intestines Move into Chest Cavity

Herniated Diaphragm
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Several chromosomal syndromes are associated with congenital diaphragmatic hernia.


Symptoms include:

  • Severe respiratory distress, including rapid breathing, grunting, use of accessory muscles, and bluish tint to the skin from lack of oxygen (cyanosis)
  • Asymmetrical or increased diameter of the chest wall
  • Concave abdomen


Diagnosis is frequently made on prenatal ultrasound]]> . Your doctor will perform a physical exam. Tests may include the following:

  • Listening to the chest to check for movements of the chest that are asymmetric with breathing, absent breath sounds on one side, bowel sounds in the chest, and a concave abdomen that feels vacant when palpated
  • ]]>Chest x-ray]]> to diagnose abdominal organs in the chest cavity



Treatment includes the following:


Surgery to repair the defect and move the organs into the abdomen is performed after the infant has been stabilized. This period of stabilization may take 48 hours or more. Surgery involves either sewing the edges of the diaphragm together, or if the hole is too large, using an artificial patch to fully close the hole. Fetal surgery may be offered at some institutions for select patients.

Respiratory Support

Aggressive respiratory support, including intubation with mechanical ventilation]]> , is often needed. Different ventilator strategies may be used. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), or cardiopulmonary bypass, may be necessary to stabilize the infant.


There is no known prevention for diaphragmatic hernia.