Diseases & Conditions

Abdominal Discomfort - Abdominal Distress


Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

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. There are many different reasons why a person might have abdominal problems, and the exact cause is not always clear. Symptoms may be mild and of no great concern, or they may signal a life-threatening condition.

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.

Possible causes of abdominal distress include:

  • bleeding into the abdominal wall muscles
  • bowel or abdominal infections, such as diverticulitis or appendicitis
  • cancer
  • inflammation of the abdominal lining, known as peritonitis
  • inflammation of the pancreas, usually due to alcohol use, infection, or drug use
  • injury or strain to the abdominal wall muscles
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as Neisseria gonorrhoeae\ bacteria. These infections are usually acquired through sexual contact. A gonococcal infection may also be passed from mother to baby during childbirth. ',CAPTION,'Gonococcal Infections');" onmouseout="return nd();">gonococcal infections
  • A healthcare provider's main concern is making sure the pain is not caused by a life-threatening condition. For instance, appendicitis can result in death if not treated fairly quickly.


    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    There are hundreds of conditions that can cause abdominal discomfort. There are several aspects of abdominal pain or discomfort that a healthcare provider may want to know about, including:

  • how severe the pain is
  • what makes the pain better or worse, if anything
  • what the pain feels like, such as whether the pain is sharp or cramping
  • when the pain started
  • where the pain is located
  • whether or not other symptoms are present
  • whether or not the pain moves to other areas
  • whether the pain is constant or comes and goes
  • whether the pain is related to certain foods or a certain time in the menstrual cycle for women

  • Diagnosis & Tests

    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. Abdominal exploratory surgery may be needed to make the diagnosis.


    Prevention & Expectations

    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 or not at all
  • following safer sex guidelines to prevent STDs
  • seeking prompt treatment for infections, diseases, and conditions
  • 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.

    What are the risks to others?

    Abdominal distress itself is not contagious. However, an underlying cause such as sexually transmitted disease may be contagious.


    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

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

    What are the side effects of the treatments?

    All medicines have potential side effects, including allergic reactions and stomach upset. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to anesthesia.

    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.

    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.


    Attribution

    Author:Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Ballenberg, Sally, BS
    Edit Date:10/31/01
    Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed:09/25/01

    Sources

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