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abdominal distress

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Inflammation of the sac that lines the abdominal cavity (peritoneum)

Alternative Names
abdominal pain, abdominal suffering, abdominal discomfort, abdominal bloating, belly ache, stomach pain, belly pain

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 pain, and the exact cause is not always clear. Symptoms may be mild and of no great concern, or they may represent a life-threatening condition.

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 doctor may want to know about, including:
  • where the pain is located
  • how severe the pain is
  • when the pain started
  • whether or not the pain moves to other areas
  • what makes the pain better or worse, if anything
  • what the pain feels like, such as whether the pain is sharp or crampy
  • 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
  • whether or not other symptoms are present
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Abdominal distress:
  • often comes from the gut, or the gastrointestinal tract
  • may also come from other organs or tissues inside the abdomen
  • may be related to conditions totally outside the abdomen, such as a lung or throat infection
Possible causes of abdominal distress include:
  • bowel or abdominal infections, such as diverticulitis or appendicitis
  • an inflammation of the pancreas, usually due to alcohol use, infection, or drug use
  • injury or strain to the abdominal wall muscles
  • bleeding into the abdominal wall muscles
  • inflammation of the abdominal lining, known as peritonitis
  • gastroenteritis - caused by eating contaminated food
A doctor's main concern is to make sure the cause of the pain is not due to a life-threatening condition. For instance, appendicitis, which is a fairly common infection in the bowels, can result in death if not treated quickly.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
Prevention of this condition depends on the underlying problem. Often, nothing can be done to prevent new abdominal discomfort.

How is the condition diagnosed?
A history and physical examination often leads a doctor 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. Abdominal exploratory surgery may be needed to make the diagnosis.

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

What are the risks to others?
Some conditions that cause abdominal pain, such as infection e.g. gastroenteritis, may be contagious. Other causes do not result in a risk to others.

What are the treatments for the condition?
Treatments vary widely depending on the cause of the abdominal discomfort. Treatment may include medications or surgery.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
All medications have potential side effects, including allergic reactions and stomach upset.

Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and reactions to the medications used for anaesthesia.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
What happens after treatment 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 abdominal distress depends on the underlying cause of the problem.

Author: Adam Brochert, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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