Abdominal Pain

oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Also see separate articles on the Acute Abdomen, Abdominal Pain in Pregnancy, Abdominal Pain in Childhood and Recurrent Abdominal Pain in Children. For abdominal pain by regions see Right Upper Quadrant Pain, Left Upper Quadrant pain, Epigastric Pain, Loin Pain, Right Iliac Fossa Pain and Left Iliac Fossa Pain.

Abdominal pain is a common presenting problem in primary care or A&E. Symptoms may be acute (an 'acute abdomen'), subacute or chronic. There are many possible causes - often it is not possible to reach a definite diagnosis in primary care. What is more important is to assess how ill the patient is, to identify any life-threatening problems or 'red flags', and to decide the next step in management, eg whether to monitor, investigate or refer, and how urgently.[1]

This article gives an overview on assessment of patients with abdominal pain, lists possible causes (by region), and lastly, discusses causes of abdominal pain in particular groups (the elderly, immunocompromised and athletes).

Urgent or easily missed causes of acute abdominal pain

There are numerous causes of acute abdominal pain - this list points out some of the most urgent or the more easily missed causes to keep in mind:

Medical: Gynaecological/obstetric: Surgical:
  • How ill is the patient?
    • For acute abdominal pain[1]:
      • Use the 'ABCD' approach and always check - and document - vital signs.
      • Subtle changes in vital signs may indicate serious illness, eg unexplained tachycardia can indicate a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.
      • If the patient is shocked, give intravenous fluids/colloid until the radial pulse is palpable, and get senior help.
      • Give analgesia if needed: intravenous (IV) opiates may be given and do not affect clinical assessment; titrate small doses and monitor blood pressure.
      • Aim to identify urgent problems (see under 'Urgent or easily missed causes of acute abdominal pain', above).
      Always consider ectopic pregnancy in any woman of childbearing age.
    • For subacute or chronic abdominal pain, look for 'red flags' and other alerting features such as:
      • Age >60 years.
      • Relevant family history - ovarian or bowel cancer, familial polyposis coli.
      • History suggesting gastrointestinal (GI) bleed.
      • Unexplained weight loss (or poor growth in children).
      • Repeated consultations for the same problem; change in pattern of consultation ('beware the patient with thin notes').
      • Anaemia.
      • Masses or organomegaly.
  • History and examination ± initial investigations (see 'History' and 'Examination' sections, below).
  • Decide initial management:
    • Have a low threshold for admission/referral of young children, the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with learning difficulties - these groups are more likely to present late or without classical symptoms and signs, and may deteriorate quickly.
    • Symptoms and signs may evolve over time - reassessment is an important tool.
    • If the patient is discharged, ensure they know when to seek further help.

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History

  • Location, nature and severity of pain:
    • Colicky (waves of pain) - suggests obstructed viscus, eg intestinal obstruction, renal colic, biliary colic.
    • Tearing pain - suggests aortic dissection or rupture.
    • Constant sharp pain, worse on movement or coughing - suggests peritonitis.
    • Constant dull ache - suggests inflammation - eg appendicitis, diverticulitis.
    • The pattern of pain may change over time, eg early appendicitis, mesenteric ischaemia or bowel strangulation may begin as colicky pain and then become constant as the condition progresses; pain may localise as the parietal peritoneum becomes involved.
  • Any radiation or referred pain?
    • Aortic aneurysm, renal and pancreatic pain - may radiate to the back.
    • Renal colic - may radiate to the groin.
    • Diaphragmatic irritation - may cause shoulder tip pain.
    • Gallbladder pain - may radiate to scapula.
  • Onset of pain:
    • Very sudden onset suggests rupture or torsion of an organ (eg ruptured aneurysm, ectopic pregnancy, torsion of testis or ovary).
  • Other symptoms:
    • Systemic symptoms - fever, night sweats, weight loss.
    • Vomiting - may be due to severe pain (eg testicular torsion), gastroenteritis or obstruction.
    • Bleeding - upper GI (haematemesis or melaena) or lower GI (rectal bleed).
    • Constipation or diarrhoea.
    • Vaginal bleeding or discharge - consider gynaecological/obstetric causes.
  • Past medical history:
    • Any similar episodes?
    • Previous illness or surgery?
    • Medication/allergies/last meal.

Examination

See separate article Abdominal Examination.

Initial investigations in primary care

  • Urine pregnancy test:
    • Urine beta human chorionic gonadotrophin (beta-hCG) tests are sensitive, detecting beta-hCG at 25 IU/L (a level normally reached 9 days post-conception).[3] A negative urine beta-hCG result does not absolutely rule out an ectopic pregnancy - if discordant with the clinical picture, arrange serum beta-hCG or an urgent assessment.[4]
  • Urinalysis ± microscopy and culture.
  • Depending on the clinical scenario, consider:
    • Blood tests:
      • FBC (for occult bleeding).
      • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)/C-reactive protein (CRP) - for inflammatory bowel disease.
      • Coeliac antibodies (anti-endomysial antibody or tissue transglutaminase test).
      • U&E, glucose, LFT, amylase, calcium.
    • ECG
    • Ultrasound of the abdomen and pelvis.

Initial investigation in A&E

  • Urine pregnancy test.
  • Urinalysis ± microscopy and culture.
  • Depending on the clinical scenario, consider:
    • ECG.
    • Blood tests:
      • FBC.
      • Group/crossmatch blood.
      • ESR/CRP
      • U&E, glucose, amylase, calcium.
    • Erect chest X-ray (looking for air under the diaphragm).
    • Plain abdominal X-ray (or erect and supine abdominal X-rays if an obstruction is suspected) - may show up obstruction, volvulus, ischaemia, severe constipation.
    • Ultrasound or CT scans.

Further investigations

  • Upper or lower GI endoscopy.
  • Ultrasound or CT scans targeted at suspected pathology.
  • Diagnostic laparoscopy.
  • Laparotomy.

Causes of abdominal pain by regions[5][6][7][8]

Diffuse pain or variable locations:
Right subcostal:
Epigastric:
Left subcostal:
  • Cardiac (see 'Epigastric' region).
  • Lung - pneumonia, pleurisy, pulmonary embolus.
  • Spleen - rupture, abscess, acute splenomegaly.
  • Gastric (see 'Epigastric' region).
Right flank and loin:
  • Aortic aneurysm or dissection.
  • Renal - stones,
    pyelonephritis, tumours.
  • Retrocaecal appendicitis.
  • Diverticulitis.
  • Ovarian pathology.
  • Other problems - gallstones (rarely), retroperitoneal haemorrhage, mesenteric ischaemia.
Central abdomen:
Left flank and loin:
  • Aortic aneurysm or dissection.
  • Renal - stones, pyelonephritis, tumours.
  • Diverticulitis.
  • Ovarian pathology.
  • Other problems - pancreatitis (rarely), retroperitoneal haemorrhage, mesenteric ischaemia.
Right iliac fossa:
  • Appendicitis.
  • Mesenteric adenitis.
  • Meckel's diverticulitis.
  • Ectopic pregnancy and other gynaecological causes (see 'Left iliac fossa').
  • Testicular torsion.
  • Urinary tract - infection or stones.
  • Colon (see 'Left iliac fossa').
  • Hernia - inguinal or femoral.
  • Caecal tumours.
Lower abdomen:
  • Urinary tract - distended bladder, infection.
  • Colon (see 'Left iliac fossa').
  • Gynaecological (see 'Left iliac fossa').
  • Obstetric - miscarriage, labour, placental abruption.
Left iliac fossa:

Elderly patients[10]

Presentation tends to be different from younger patients - it may lack classical symptoms and signs, and it tends to present later.

Common causes of abdominal pain in the elderly are:

  • Peptic ulcer disease.
  • Cholecystitis.
  • Acute pancreatitis.
  • Mesenteric ischaemia/infarction.
  • Aortic aneurysm.
  • Bowel obstruction - small or large bowel.
  • Diverticular disease/diverticulitis.
  • Constipation.
  • Urinary retention.
  • Medical causes (see table 'Causes of abdominal pain by regions', above).

Immunocompromised patients[11]

The classical signs of an acute abdomen may be absent in the immune compromised patient.

Patients with the most severe immunocompromise are chemotherapy patients with neutropenia, and HIV patients with CD4+ cell count <200/mm3. Mild-moderate immune deficiency occurs in patients who are malnourished, taking steroids, elderly, and patients with diabetes, cancer or HIV positive with CD4+ cell count >200/mm3.

Particular causes of abdominal pain in this group include:

  • Gastritis - can be due to pathogens such as Candida spp., Cryptosporidium spp. and cytomegalovirus (CMV).
  • Hepatic pathology - cholecystitis with atypical pathogens, AIDs-related cholangitis, liver abscess.
  • Pseudomembranous colitis.
  • Typhlitis (neutropenic enterocolitis) - fever and abdominal pain, particularly right iliac fossa pain.
  • CMV colitis - a small vessel vasculitis mainly affecting the colon; it affects AIDS and renal transplant patients.
  • Abdominal tuberculosis - usually ileocaecal.
  • Disseminated Mycobacterium avium intracellulare (MAI) - usually in AIDS patients, affecting the jejunum or small bowel; severe abdominal pain and systemic symptoms.
  • Acute graft versus host disease - after bone marrow transplant.
  • Bowel obstruction or intussusception - due to lymphoma or Kaposi's sarcoma.
  • Side-effects of antiretrovirals, chemotherapy or other treatments.

Athletes

Abdominal pain during exertion is a common symptom among endurance sports athletes such as long distance runners. There are many possible causes which may need careful evaluation. These are discussed in the literature.[12]

Further reading & references

  1. Gray J, Wardrope J, Fothergill DJ; Abdominal pain, abdominal pain in women, complications of pregnancy and labour. Emerg Med J. 2004 Sep;21(5):606-13.
  2. Madill JJ, Mullen NB, Harrison BP; Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome: a potentially fatal complication of early J Emerg Med. 2008 Oct;35(3):283-6. Epub 2008 Apr 10.
  3. The management of early pregnancy loss, Royal College of Obstretricians and Gynaecologists (2006)
  4. Ectopic pregnancy, Clinical Knowledge Summaries (February 2010)
  5. Cartwright SL, Knudson MP; Evaluation of acute abdominal pain in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2008 Apr 1;77(7):971-8.
  6. Ansari P; Acute abdominal pain, updated Sep 2007. In: Merck Manuals online.
  7. Greenberger NJ; Chronic and recurrent abdominal pain, updated Mar 2008. In: Merck Manuals online.
  8. Rucker CM, Menias CO, Bhalla S; Mimics of renal colic: alternative diagnoses at unenhanced helical CT. Radiographics. 2004 Oct;24 Suppl 1:S11-28; discussion S28-33.
  9. Berger MY, Gieteling MJ, Benninga MA; Chronic abdominal pain in children. BMJ. 2007 May 12;334(7601):997-1002.
  10. Lyon C, Clark DC; Diagnosis of acute abdominal pain in older patients. Am Fam Physician. 2006 Nov 1;74(9):1537-44.
  11. Spencer SP, Power N; The acute abdomen in the immune compromised host. Cancer Imaging. 2008 Apr 22;8:93-101.
  12. Dimeo FC, Peters J, Guderian H; Abdominal pain in long distance runners: case report and analysis of the literature. Br J Sports Med. 2004 Oct;38(5):E24.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Naomi Hartree
Current Version:
Last Checked:
18/02/2011
Document ID:
1735 (v23)
© EMIS