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Abdominal Rigidity

Alternate Names

  • abdominal guarding
  • Inflammation of the sac that lines the abdominal cavity (peritoneum)

Definition

Abdominal rigidity describes stiffness of the wall of the abdomen.

What is going on in the body?

Abdominal rigidity is often caused by a spasm of the abdominal wall muscles after an injury. It may also be a sign that the person has swelling inside the abdominal cavity. Serious disease, especially infection, inside the abdomen can also cause abdominal rigidity.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Rigidity may point to a local problem in the muscles. Or it may relate to a deeper problem inside the abdomen. These are causes of abdominal rigidity:
  • bleeding into the muscles of the abdominal wall
  • bowel or abdominal infection, such as diverticulitis or appendicitis
  • an inflammation of the pancreas
  • injury or strain to the muscles of the abdominal wall
  • peritonitis, or an inflamed lining of the abdomen

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Most of the time, abdominal rigidity cannot be prevented; in fact, it is a helpful physical sign alerting the healthcare professional of a deeper underlying problem. A few cases may be prevented by avoiding alcohol abuse that leads to pancreatitis. Following sports safety guidelines for children,adolescents, and adults may reduce injuries to the abdomen.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Abdominal rigidity itself is easily seen and felt on physical exam. Diagnosing why abdominal rigidity is happening begins with the medical history.
If the cause is not immediately apparent, the healthcare professional may order tests such as:
  • an abdominal CT scan or abdominal MRI
  • blood tests
  • an ultrasound
  • urine tests

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

One should be concerned about abdominal rigidity. It can point to the presence of a life-threatening infection. If this is the case, death may occur if prompt treatment fails to work.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Abdominal rigidity is not contagious, and poses no risks to others.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment depends on the underlying cause. If abdominal rigidity is due to a muscle injury, rest and pain medicines are used. Other causes need more extensive treatment, such as:
  • antibiotics
  • intravenous fluids
  • surgery

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Medicines may cause allergic reactions and stomach upset. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or an allergic reaction to the anesthetic.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Treatment often stops when the person recovers and the rigidity goes away. The condition may be cured for good, as it is when the appendix is removed with an appendectomy. In more serious cases, death may occur if treatment is not successful.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

The need for monitoring depends on the underlying cause of the problem. Both the symptoms and the physical exam findings should be followed closely hour by hour, although the clinician should avoid pushing repeatedly on a tender abdomen. Urine tests, blood tests, and X-ray tests also may be needed to monitor the condition. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional immediately.

Sources

Principles of Surgery, 1999, Schwartz et al.

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