Acute Abdominal Pain

Overview

Definition

Acute abdomen is a medical term. It's used to describe sudden and severe pain in the belly. This kind of pain can signal a larger problem. Some may need care right away.

Abdominal Organs, Anterior View
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Causes

There are many reasons causes for abdominal pain such as:

Inflammation in the:

  • Appendix
  • Gallbladder
  • Pancreas

Health conditions such as:

  • An infection or abscess
  • Diarrhea
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Diverticulitis
  • Ulcerative colitis or Crohn disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Hernia
  • Gallstones
  • Kidney stones
  • Ruptured or leaking abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Cancer

Other problems such as:

  • Blockage in the small or large intestine
  • Lack of blood flow to the organs in the belly

In women:

  • Menstrual cramps
  • Endometriosis
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease—inflammation around the organs in the pelvis because of an infection
  • Miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy

In babies:

  • Intussusception—the intestines telescope causing a block
  • Volvulus—a twisting of the large intestine around itself
  • Hirschsprung disease

Risk Factors

Having any of the problems listed above will make the chances of pain in your belly higher.

SymptomsandDiagnosis

Symptoms

The symptoms you have will depend on the cause. The most common are:

  • Persistent, severe pain, swelling, or tenderness in the upper, middle, or lower part of the belly
  • Guarding—involuntary contraction of the muscles in the belly
  • Rigidity—when muscles in the belly are tense and board-like
  • Fever

Diagnosis

You will be asked for details about your pain. You will also be asked about other problems you may be having. A health history will be taken. You will be asked about any medicines you’ve taken. A physical exam will be done. This will involve checking the pelvis and rectum. You may also have:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan
  • X-rays
  • MRI scan
  • Exploratory laparotomy—to look for problems inside the belly

Treatments

Treatment

You may be given pain relievers. Talk to your doctor before you eat, drink, or take any medicine.

The cause of belly pain will need to be treated. Sometimes it's an emergency and surgery is needed right away.

Other methods may be with:

  • Medicines
  • Diet or lifestyle changes

Prevention

Acute abdomen may not be preventable. It has many causes. If you're at high risk for problems, talk to your doctor.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.

a (Severe Stomach Ache; Abdominal Cramps)

RESOURCES

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians https://familydoctor.org 

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases https://www.niddk.nih.gov 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Association of Gastroenterology https://www.cag-acg.org 

Canadian Digestive Health Foundation http://www.cdhf.ca 

References

Abdominal pain (stomach pain), short-term. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/symptom/abdominal-pain-stomach-pain-short-term. Accessed August 23, 2018.

Acute abdominal pain in adults—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:  http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T912361/Acute-abdominal-pain-in-adults-approach-to-the-patient . Updated October 21, 2016. Accessed August 23, 2018.

Cartwright S, Knudson M. Diagnostic imaging of acute abdominal pain in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2015;91(7):452-459.

Cartwright S, Knudson M. Evaluation of acute abdominal pain in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2008;77(7):971-978.

Leung A, Sigalet D. Acute abdominal pain in children. Am Fam Physician. 20031;67(11):2321-2327.