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Most of the time, it is not necessary to do any tests to diagnose a hernia, as the symptoms are typical and the hernia can be seen and felt. However, some hernias can be difficult to detect, and your doctor may organise tests to obtain more information.


Ultrasound is a widely available, simple and non-invasive test to look for a hernia. It involves a trained healthcare professional applying jelly to the area of concern to allow pictures to be obtained of the muscles and look for a hernia. You may be asked to strain to try and make any hernia more obvious and easy to see. While ultrasound can be a very useful test, it should be used together with the symptoms a patient reports and the findings from examining them.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Another good test to look at muscles and other soft tissues is an MRI scan. It involves lying flat on a firm and relatively narrow bed which then moves into a tunnel to use a high-powered magnet to obtain pictures of your insides. If you have claustrophobia, you may not be able to have this test. In addition, the machine can be quite noisy, and you will be provided with ear plugs. You also cannot have this test if you have certain pieces of metal in your body, such as certain pacemakers, or shrapnel. You will have to complete a questionnaire before having this scan to check it is safe for you.

Computed Tomography (CT)

Occasionally, particularly for incisional hernias or in an emergency setting, a CT scan is required. You lie down on a narrow bed which moves through an open ring, like a big doughnut. This scan is much quicker than an MRI, and is not generally a problem even in claustrophobic patients as the machine is open rather than a tunnel. However, it involves exposure to x-rays, a form of ionising radiation. It is therefore only performed when needed, and is generally avoided in children and pregnancy.


Plain x-ray pictures are usually only taken for hernias when patients have problems requiring emergency assessment and/or admission to hospital. These involve a lower dose of x-ray radiation than a CT scan and can give useful information about whether there is a blockage in the bowel, or look for other causes of symptoms.