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Abdominal Distress

Alternate Names

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

Definition

Abdominal distress refers to any pain or discomfort in the abdomen.

What is going on in the body?

Abdominal distress is a very common complaint. The list of different possible causes is long, and the exact cause is often not clear, especially at first. Symptoms may be mild and of no great concern, or they may signal a life-threatening condition.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Abdominal distress often comes from the gut, or the gastrointestinal tract. It may also come from other organs or tissues inside the abdomen.

Other times, conditions totally outside the abdomen, such as a lung infection, cause abdominal distress.

Common causes of abdominal distress include:
  • bleeding into the abdominal wall muscles
  • spasms of the intestines, known as irritable bowel syndrome
  • bowel or abdominal infections, such as diverticulitis or appendicitis
  • cancer
  • peptic ulcers or acid reflux disease
  • gallbladder disease, often, but not always caused by gallstones
  • inflammation of the abdominal lining, known as peritonitis
  • inflammation of the pancreas, usually due to alcohol use, infection, or drug use
  • lack of adequate blood flow to the digestive system, called ischmia
  • blockage of the digestive tract, such as adhesions, inflammation, or tumor
  • injury or strain to the abdominal wall muscles
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as gonococcal infections
A healthcare provider's first concern is making sure the pain is not caused by a life-threatening condition. For instance, appendicitis can result in death if diagnosis and treatment are delayed.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Often, nothing can be done to prevent new abdominal discomfort. Some abdominal problems can be avoided by:
  • avoiding illegal drugs
  • drinking alcohol in moderation if at all
  • following safer sex guidelines to prevent STDs
  • seeking prompt treatment for infections, diseases, and conditions

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

A medical history and physical examination often lead a healthcare provider to narrow the list of potential causes for abdominal distress. Further testing depends on the possible remaining causes.
Testing may include blood tests and X-rays. The provider may order an abdominal CT scan or abdominal MRI. Endoscopy of the digestive tract, using a tube with a light and camera chip through the mouth or rectum, may be ordered. In some instances, abdominal exploratory surgery may be needed to make the diagnosis.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Long-term effects can range from none to permanent disability or even to death. This depends on the underlying cause of the abdominal distress.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Abdominal distress itself is not contagious. However, an underlying cause such as bacterial or viral colitis or a sexually transmitted disease may be contagious.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatments vary widely depending on the cause of the abdominal discomfort. Treatment may include medicines or surgery.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

All medicines have potential side effects, including 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?

Follow-up depends on the underlying cause. A person may need no further monitoring or may need treatment for the rest of his or her life.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Monitoring depends on the underlying cause of the problem. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.

Sources

Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.

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