Acute Abdominal Pain Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

Acute Abdominal Pain Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

Acute Abdominal Pain

Acute abdomen is the medical term used for pain in the abdomen that usually comes on suddenly and is so severe that one may have to go to the hospital. Acute abdominal pain refers to pain with sudden onset and duration of less than 48 hours, while chronic abdominal pain lasts longer than two weeks.

Acute abdominal pain is very common, with up to 20% of people experiencing abdominal pain in the past year. Up to 90% of cases are of minor significance and resolve in 2-3 weeks on their own. However, there are many life-threatening causes of abdominal pain, leading to potential consequences such as bowel performation, ischemia, or sepsis. As such, clinicians need to have a high index of suspicion for concern when evaluating abdominal pain.

Abdominal pain is common and often minor. Severe abdominal pain that comes on quickly, however, almost always indicates a significant problem.  Acute abdominal pain can signal a variety of more serious conditions, some of which require immediate medical care and/or surgery.

Causes of Acute Abdominal Pain

There are a number of possible causes of acute abdomen. These may include:

                      - Menstrual cramps
                      - Endometriosis
                      - Uterine fibroids
                      - Ovarian cysts
                      - Pelvic inflammatory disease - inflammation around the ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes
                      - Miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy
  • In infants:
                      - Intussusception  - the telescoping of one portion of the intestine into another, causing obstruction of the bowel and blockage of its blood flow
                      - Volvulus - a twisting of the colon around itself
                      - Hirschsprung's disease - also known as congenital megacolon
                      - Other congenital defects of the digestive tract

Risk Factors of Acute Abdominal Pain

Factors that increase your risk of acute abdomen will depend on the cause.

Symptoms of Acute Abdominal Pain

The symptoms of acute abdomen have a variety of causes. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.

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

Warning signs:

In people with acute abdominal pain, certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern. They include:

  • Severe pain
  • Signs of shock (for example, a rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, sweating, and confusion)
  • Signs of peritonitis (for example, constant pain that doubles the person over and/or pain that worsens with gentle touching or with bumping the bed)
  • Swelling of the abdomen

When to see a doctor:

People who have warning signs should go to the hospital right away. People who have no warning signs should see a doctor within a day.

Diagnosis for Acute Abdominal Pain

You will be asked for details about your pain, such as the exact location and duration. You will also be asked about any additional symptoms you may be having such as bowel or urinary symptoms. A medical history will be taken. You will be asked about any drugs or medications you’ve taken. A physical exam will be done, including rectal and pelvic examinations.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine analysis
Your bodily structures may need to be viewed. This can be done with:

  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • KUB (kidney, ureter, and bladder) x-rays
  • Barium x-rays
  • Angiography
  • Endoscopy
  • Surgery may be done to visually examine the abdomen.

Treatment for Acute Abdominal Pain

You may be given pain relievers. However, many doctors may delay prescribing pain relievers, since details of the pain can help find its cause. Do not take any medication such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, and do not eat or drink until you have spoken with your doctor.

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Depending on the underlying condition causing your acute abdomen, treatment options may include:

  • Medications
  • Diet or lifestyle changes
  • Advanced medical treatment such as surgery - may be required for the majority of severe abdominal pains that last for at least six hours in previously healthy patients.

Prevention for Acute Abdominal Pain

Depending on the underlying condition causing acute abdomen, prevention measures will vary. Talk with your doctor about preventing conditions that cause acute abdomen.