Abdominal pain

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Albert Flores

Abdominal pain, also known as a stomach ache, is a symptom associated with both non-serious and serious medical issues.

Common causes of pain in the abdomen include gastroenteritis and irritable bowel syndrome. About 15% of people have a more serious underlying condition such as appendicitis, leaking or ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, diverticulitis, or ectopic pregnancy. +more In a third of cases the exact cause is unclear.

Given that a variety of diseases can cause some form of abdominal pain, a systematic approach to the examination of a person and the formulation of a differential diagnosis remains important.

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Differential diagnosis

The most frequent reasons for abdominal pain are gastroenteritis (13%), irritable bowel syndrome (8%), urinary tract problems (5%), inflammation of the stomach (5%) and constipation (5%). In about 30% of cases, the cause is not determined. +more About 10% of cases have a more serious cause including gallbladder (gallstones or biliary dyskinesia) or pancreas problems (4%), diverticulitis (3%), appendicitis (2%) and cancer (1%). More common in those who are older, ischemic colitis, mesenteric ischemia, and abdominal aortic aneurysms are other serious causes.

Acute abdominal pain

Acute abdomen can be defined as severe, persistent abdominal pain of sudden onset that is likely to require surgical intervention to treat its cause. The pain may frequently be associated with nausea and vomiting, abdominal distention, fever and signs of shock. +more One of the most common conditions associated with acute abdominal pain is acute appendicitis.

Selected causes

Traumatic: blunt or perforating trauma to the stomach, bowel, spleen, liver, or kidney * Inflammatory: ** Infections such as appendicitis, cholecystitis, pancreatitis, pyelonephritis, Peritonitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, hepatitis, mesenteric adenitis, or a subdiaphragmatic abscess ** Perforation of a peptic ulcer, a diverticulum, or the caecum ** Complications of inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis * Mechanical: ** Small bowel obstruction secondary to adhesions caused by previous surgeries, intussusception, hernias, benign or malignant neoplasms ** Large bowel obstruction caused by colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, volvulus, fecal impaction or hernia * Vascular: occlusive intestinal ischemia, usually caused by thromboembolism of the superior mesenteric artery

By system

A more extensive list includes the following: * Gastrointestinal ** GI tract *** Inflammatory: gastroenteritis, appendicitis, gastritis, esophagitis, diverticulitis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, microscopic colitis *** Obstruction: hernia, intussusception, volvulus, post-surgical adhesions, tumors, severe constipation, hemorrhoids *** Vascular: embolism, thrombosis, hemorrhage, sickle cell disease, abdominal angina, blood vessel compression (such as celiac artery compression syndrome), superior mesenteric artery syndrome, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome *** Digestive: peptic ulcer, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, food allergies, indigestion ** Glands *** Bile system **** Inflammatory: cholecystitis, cholangitis **** Obstruction: cholelithiasis, tumours *** Liver **** Inflammatory: hepatitis, liver abscess *** Pancreatic **** Inflammatory: pancreatitis * Renal and urological ** Inflammation: pyelonephritis, bladder infection ** Obstruction: kidney stones, urolithiasis, urinary retention, tumours ** Vascular: left renal vein entrapment * Gynaecological or obstetric ** Inflammatory: pelvic inflammatory disease ** Mechanical: ovarian torsion ** Endocrinological: menstruation, Mittelschmerz ** Tumors: endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian cyst, ovarian cancer ** Pregnancy: ruptured ectopic pregnancy, threatened abortion * Abdominal wall ** muscle strain or trauma ** muscular infection ** neurogenic pain: herpes zoster, radiculitis in Lyme disease, abdominal cutaneous nerve entrapment syndrome (ACNES), tabes dorsalis * Referred pain ** from the thorax: pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, ischemic heart disease, pericarditis ** from the spine: radiculitis ** from the genitals: testicular torsion * Metabolic disturbance ** uremia, diabetic ketoacidosis, porphyria, C1-esterase inhibitor deficiency, adrenal insufficiency, lead poisoning, black widow spider bite, narcotic withdrawal * Blood vessels ** aortic dissection, abdominal aortic aneurysm * Immune system ** sarcoidosis ** vasculitis ** familial Mediterranean fever * Idiopathic ** irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)(affecting up to 20% of the population, IBS is the most common cause of recurrent and intermittent abdominal pain)

By location

The location of abdominal pain can provide information about what may be causing the pain. The abdomen can be divided into four regions called quadrants. +more Locations and associated conditions include: * Diffuse ** Peritonitis ** Vascular: mesenteric ischemia, ischemic colitis, Henoch-Schonlein purpura, sickle cell disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, polyarteritis nodosa ** Small bowel obstruction ** Irritable bowel syndrome ** Metabolic disorders: ketoacidosis, porphyria, familial Mediterranean fever, adrenal crisis * Epigastric ** Heart: myocardial infarction, pericarditis ** Stomach: gastritis, stomach ulcer, stomach cancer ** Pancreas: pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer ** Intestinal: duodenal ulcer, diverticulitis, appendicitis * Right upper quadrant ** Liver: hepatomegaly, fatty liver, hepatitis, liver cancer, abscess ** Gallbladder and biliary tract: inflammation, gallstones, worm infection, cholangitis ** Colon: bowel obstruction, functional disorders, gas accumulation, spasm, inflammation, colon cancer ** Other: pneumonia, Fitz-Hugh-Curtis syndrome * Left upper quadrant ** Splenomegaly ** Colon: bowel obstruction, functional disorders, gas accumulation, spasm, inflammation, colon cancer * Peri-umbilical (the area around the umbilicus, aka the belly button) ** Appendicitis ** Pancreatitis ** Inferior myocardial infarction ** Peptic ulcer ** Diabetic ketoacidosis ** Vascular: aortic dissection, aortic rupture ** Bowel: mesenteric ischemia, Celiac disease, inflammation, intestinal spasm, functional disorders, small bowel obstruction * Lower abdominal pain ** Diarrhea ** Colitis ** Crohn's ** Dysentery ** Hernia * Right lower quadrant ** Colon: intussusception, bowel obstruction, appendicitis (McBurney's point) ** Renal: kidney stone (nephrolithiasis), pyelonephritis ** Pelvic: cystitis, bladder stone, bladder cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, pelvic pain syndrome ** Gynecologic: endometriosis, intrauterine pregnancy, ectopic pregnancy, ovarian cyst, ovarian torsion, fibroid (leiomyoma), abscess, ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer * Left lower quadrant ** Bowel: diverticulitis, sigmoid colon volvulus, bowel obstruction, gas accumulation, Toxic megacolon * Right low back pain ** Liver: hepatomegaly ** Kidney: kidney stone (nephrolithiasis), complicated urinary tract infection * Left low back pain ** Spleen ** Kidney: kidney stone (nephrolithiasis), complicated urinary tract infection * Low back pain ** kidney pain (kidney stone, kidney cancer, hydronephrosis) ** Ureteral stone pain.

Pathophysiology

style = "float: right; margin-left:15px; text-align:center"RegionBlood supplyInnervationStructures
ForegutCeliac arteryT5 - T9Pharynx Esophagus Lower respiratory tract Stomach Proximal duodenum Liver Biliary tract Gallbladder Pancreas
MidgutSuperior mesenteric arteryT10 - T12Distal duodenum Cecum Appendix Ascending colon Proximal transverse colon
HindgutInferior mesenteric arteryL1 - L3Distal transverse colon Descending colon Sigmoid colon Rectum Fever Superior anal canal
Abdominal pain can be referred to as visceral pain or peritoneal pain. The contents of the abdomen can be divided into the foregut, midgut, and hindgut. +more The foregut contains the pharynx, lower respiratory tract, portions of the esophagus, stomach, portions of the duodenum (proximal), liver, biliary tract (including the gallbladder and bile ducts), and the pancreas. The midgut contains portions of the duodenum (distal), cecum, appendix, ascending colon, and first half of the transverse colon. The hindgut contains the distal half of the transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, rectum, and superior anal canal.

Each subsection of the gut has an associated visceral afferent nerve that transmits sensory information from the viscera to the spinal cord, traveling with the autonomic sympathetic nerves. The visceral sensory information from the gut traveling to the spinal cord, termed the visceral afferent, is non-specific and overlaps with the somatic afferent nerves, which are very specific. +more Therefore, visceral afferent information traveling to the spinal cord can present in the distribution of the somatic afferent nerve; this is why appendicitis initially presents with T10 periumbilical pain when it first begins and becomes T12 pain as the abdominal wall peritoneum (which is rich with somatic afferent nerves) is involved.

Diagnosis

A thorough patient history and physical examination is used to better understand the underlying cause of abdominal pain.

The process of gathering a history may include: * Identifying more information about the chief complaint by eliciting a history of present illness; i. e. +more a narrative of the current symptoms such as the onset, location, duration, character, aggravating or relieving factors, and temporal nature of the pain. Identifying other possible factors may aid in the diagnosis of the underlying cause of abdominal pain, such as recent travel, recent contact with other ill individuals, and for females, a thorough gynecologic history. * Learning about the patient's past medical history, focusing on any prior issues or surgical procedures. * Clarifying the patient's current medication regimen, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and supplements. * Confirming the patient's drug and food allergies. * Discussing with the patient any family history of disease processes, focusing on conditions that might resemble the patient's current presentation. * Discussing with the patient any health-related behaviors (e. g. tobacco use, alcohol consumption, drug use, and sexual activity) that might make certain diagnoses more likely. * Reviewing the presence of non-abdominal symptoms (e. g. , fever, chills, chest pain, shortness of breath, vaginal bleeding) that can further clarify the diagnostic picture. * Using Carnett's sign to differentiate between visceral pain and pain originating in the muscles of the abdominal wall.

After gathering a thorough history, one should perform a physical exam in order to identify important physical signs that might clarify the diagnosis, including a cardiovascular exam, lung exam, thorough abdominal exam, and for females, a genitourinary exam.

Additional investigations that can aid diagnosis include: * Blood tests including complete blood count, basic metabolic panel, electrolytes, liver function tests, amylase, lipase, troponin I, and for females, a serum pregnancy test. * Urinalysis * Imaging including chest and abdominal X-rays * Electrocardiogram

If diagnosis remains unclear after history, examination, and basic investigations as above, then more advanced investigations may reveal a diagnosis. Such tests include: * Computed tomography of the abdomen/pelvis * Abdominal or pelvic ultrasound * Endoscopy and/or colonoscopy

Management

The management of abdominal pain depends on many factors, including the etiology of the pain. In the emergency department, a person presenting with abdominal pain may initially require IV fluids due to decreased intake secondary to abdominal pain and possible emesis or vomiting. +more Treatment for abdominal pain includes analgesia, such as non-opioid (ketorolac) and opioid medications (morphine, fentanyl). Choice of analgesia is dependent on the cause of the pain, as ketorolac can worsen some intra-abdominal processes. Patients presenting to the emergency department with abdominal pain may receive a "GI cocktail" that includes an antacid (examples include omeprazole, ranitidine, magnesium hydroxide, and calcium chloride) and lidocaine. After addressing pain, there may be a role for antimicrobial treatment in some cases of abdominal pain. Butylscopolamine (Buscopan) is used to treat cramping abdominal pain with some success. Surgical management for causes of abdominal pain includes but is not limited to cholecystectomy, appendectomy, and exploratory laparotomy.

Emergencies

Below is a brief overview of abdominal pain emergencies.

AppendicitisAbdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever Periumbilical pain, migrates to RLQClinical (history & physical exam) Abdominal CTPatient made NPO (nothing by mouth) IV fluids as needed General surgery consultation, possible appendectomy Antibiotics Pain control
CholecystitisAbdominal pain (RUQ, radiates epigastric), nausea, vomiting, fever, Murphy's signClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging (RUQ ultrasound) Labs (leukocytosis, transamintis, hyperbilirubinemia)Patient made NPO (nothing by mouth) IV fluids as needed General surgery consultation, possible cholecystectomy Antibiotics Pain, nausea control
Acute pancreatitisAbdominal pain (sharp epigastric, shooting to back), nausea, vomitingClinical (history & physical exam) Labs (elevated lipase) Imaging (abdominal CT, ultrasound)Patient made NPO (nothing by mouth) IV fluids as needed Pain, nausea control Possibly consultation of general surgery or interventional radiology
Bowel obstructionAbdominal pain (diffuse, crampy), bilious emesis, constipationClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging (abdominal X-ray, abdominal CT)Patient made NPO (nothing by mouth) IV fluids as needed Nasogastric tube placement General surgery consultation Pain control
Upper GI bleedAbdominal pain (epigastric), hematochezia, melena, hematemesis, hypovolemiaClinical (history & physical exam, including digital rectal exam) Labs (complete blood count, coagulation profile, transaminases, stool guaiac)Aggressive IV fluid resuscitation Blood transfusion as needed Medications: proton pump inhibitor, octreotide Stable patient: observation Unstable patient: consultation (general surgery, gastroenterology, interventional radiology)
Lower GI BleedAbdominal pain, hematochezia, melena, hypovolemiaClinical (history & physical exam, including digital rectal exam) Labs (complete blood count, coagulation profile, transaminases, stool guaiac)Aggressive IV fluid resuscitation Blood transfusion as needed Medications: proton pump inhibitor Stable patient: observation Unstable patient: consultation (general surgery, gastroenterology, interventional radiology)
Perforated ViscousAbdominal pain (sudden onset of localized pain), abdominal distension, rigid abdomenClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging (abdominal X-ray or CT showing free air) Labs (complete blood count)Aggressive IV fluid resuscitation General surgery consultation Antibiotics
VolvulusSigmoid colon volvulus: Abdominal pain (>2 days, distention, constipation) Cecal volvulus: Abdominal pain (acute onset), nausea, vomitingClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging (abdominal X-ray or CT)Sigmoid: Gastroenterology consultation (flexibile sigmoidoscopy) Cecal: General surgery consultation (right hemicolectomy)
Ectopic pregnancyAbdominal and pelvic pain, bleeding If ruptured ectopic pregnancy, the patient may present with peritoneal irritation and hypovolemic shockClinical (history & physical exam) Labs: complete blood count, urine pregnancy test followed with quantitative blood beta-hCG Imaging: transvaginal ultrasoundIf patient is unstable: IV fluid resuscitation, urgent obstetrics and gynecology consultation If patient is stable: continue diagnostic workup, establish OBGYN follow-up
Abdominal aortic aneurysmAbdominal pain, flank pain, back pain, hypotension, pulsatile abdominal massClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging: Ultrasound, CT angiography, MRA/magnetic resonance angiographyIf patient is unstable: IV fluid resuscitation, urgent surgical consultation If patient is stable: admit for observation
Aortic dissectionAbdominal pain (sudden onset of epigastric or back pain), hypertension, new aortic murmurClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging: Chest X-Ray (showing widened mediastinum), CT angiography, MRA, transthoracic echocardiogram/TTE, transesophageal echocardiogram/TEEIV fluid resuscitation Blood transfusion as needed (obtain type and cross) Medications: reduce blood pressure (sodium nitroprusside plus beta blocker or calcium channel blocker) Surgery consultation
Liver injuryAfter trauma (blunt or penetrating), abdominal pain (RUQ), right rib pain, right flank pain, right shoulder painClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging: FAST examination, CT of abdomen and pelvis Diagnostic peritoneal aspiration and lavageResuscitation (Advanced Trauma Life Support) with IV fluids (crystalloid) and blood transfusion If patient is unstable: general or trauma surgery consultation with subsequent exploratory laparotomy
Splenic injuryAfter trauma (blunt or penetrating), abdominal pain (LUQ), left rib pain, left flank painClinical (history & physical exam) Imaging: FAST examination, CT of abdomen and pelvis Diagnostic peritoneal aspiration and lavageResuscitation (Advanced Trauma Life Support) with IV fluids (crystalloid) and blood transfusion If patient is unstable: general or trauma surgery consultation with subsequent exploratory laparotomy and possible splenectomy If patient is stable: medical management, consultation of interventional radiology for possible arterial embolization

Epidemiology

Abdominal pain is the reason about 3% of adults see their family physician. Rates of emergency department (ED) visits in the United States for abdominal pain increased 18% from 2006 through to 2011. +more This was the largest increase out of 20 common conditions seen in the ED. The rate of ED use for nausea and vomiting also increased 18%.

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