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Differential diagnosis of abdominal pain in adults

Mary B Fishman, MD
Mark D Aronson, MD

UpToDate performs a continuous review of over 330 journals and other resources. Updates are added as important new information is published. The literature review for version 13.1 is current through December 2004; this topic was last changed on December 9, 2004. The next version of UpToDate (13.2) will be released in June 2005.

INTRODUCTION — The evaluation of abdominal pain requires an understanding of the possible mechanisms responsible for pain, a broad differential of common causes, and recognition of typical patterns and clinical presentations. All patients do not have classic presentations. Thus, unusual causes of abdominal pain must also be considered, especially in elderly and immunocompromised patients.

An epidemiologic assessment of acute abdominal pain found that 10 diagnostic groups could be classified in outpatients complaining of abdominal pain on their first visit to primary care physicians: whole abdominal; epigastric; right subcostal; left subcostal; right flank; left flank; periumbilical; right-lower; mid-lower; and left-lower (show table 1) [1]. The overall sensitivity of history taking and physical examination was poor. Specificity was highest in patients with epigastric pain caused by gastroduodenal diseases; right subcostal pain caused by hepatobiliary diseases; and mid-lower pain caused by gynecologic diseases.

This topic review will provide an overview of the mechanisms and differential diagnosis in patients with abdominal pain. Detailed discussions of the specific causes of abdominal pain and initial management are presented separately. A detailed history and physical examination in adults with abdominal pain is also discussed separately. (See "History and physical examination in adults with abdominal pain").

Many patients with abdominal pain will have a functional disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome or functional dyspepsia. A diagnostic approach appropriate for most patients with abdominal pain and aimed at appropriately distinguishing functional disorders from more serious etiologies of abdominal pain is also presented separately. (See "Diagnostic approach to abdominal pain in adults").

NEUROLOGIC BASIS OF ABDOMINAL PAIN — Pain receptors in the abdomen respond to mechanical and chemical stimuli. Stretch is the principal mechanical stimulus involved in visceral nociception, although distention, contraction, traction, compression, and torsion are also perceived [2]. Visceral receptors responsible for these sensations are located on serosal surfaces, within the mesentery, and within the walls of hollow viscera, in which they exist between the muscularis mucosa and submucosa.

Mucosal receptors respond primarily to chemical stimuli, in contrast to other visceral nociceptors that respond to chemical or mechanical stimuli. A variety of chemical stimuli are capable of triggering these receptors including substance P, bradykinin, serotonin, histamine, and prostaglandins, which are released in response to inflammation or ischemia [3,4].

The events responsible for the perception of pain are not completely understood, but depend upon the type of stimulus and the interpretation of visceral nociceptive inputs in the central nervous system (CNS). Multiple types of stimuli may exist concurrently and influence the perception of pain. As an example, the gastric mucosa is insensitive to pressure or chemical stimuli. However, in the presence of pre-existing inflammation, these same stimuli can cause pain [5].

Processing of visceral pain signals by the CNS is also important for their interpretation. The threshold for perceiving pain from visceral stimuli may vary among individuals and in certain diseases. As an example, distension of the sigmoid colon by a balloon is perceived as painful at lower distension thresholds in some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) compared with controls [6]. In contrast, the perception of somatic pain in patients with IBS is similar to controls. Psychologic factors are also likely to be important in the perception of pain. (See "Pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome").

Localization of pain — The type and density of visceral afferent nerves makes the localization of visceral pain imprecise. However, a few general rules are useful at the bedside:

  bullet Most digestive tract pain is perceived in the midline because of bilaterally symmetric innervation (show figure 1) [2,7]. Pain that is clearly lateralized most likely arises from the ipsilateral kidney, ureter, ovary, or somatically innervated structures, which have predominantly unilateral innervation. Exceptions to this rule include the gallbladder and ascending and descending colons which, although bilaterally innervated, have predominant innervation located on their ipsilateral sides.

  bullet Visceral pain is perceived in the spinal segment at which the visceral afferent nerves enter the spinal cord [8]. As an example, afferent nerves mediating pain arising from the small intestine enter the spinal cord between T8 to L1. Thus, distension of the small intestine is usually perceived in the periumbilical region.

Referred pain — Pain originating in the viscera may sometimes be perceived as originating from a site distant from the affected organ (show figure 2) [9-11]. One explanation is that visceral afferent nerve fibers enter the spinal cord close to inputs from somatic receptors, and both types of inputs activate the same spinothalamic pathways [12]. Because the density of somatic inputs is higher than visceral inputs and because somatic inputs are more commonly stimulated, the brain tends to associate the stimulation with a somatic source.

Referred pain is usually located in the cutaneous dermatomes sharing the same spinal cord level as the visceral inputs. As an example, nociceptive inputs from the gallbladder enter the spinal cord at T5 to T10. Thus, pain from an inflamed gallbladder may be perceived in the scapula (show figure 2). Precise localization of the pain to the right upper quadrant in patients with acute cholecystitis usually occurs once the overlying parietal peritoneum (which is somatically innervated) becomes inflamed.

The quality of referred pain is aching and perceived to be near the surface of the body. In addition to pain, two other correlates of referred pain can be detected: skin hyperalgesia and increased muscle tone of the abdominal wall (which accounts for the abdominal wall rigidity sometimes observed in patients with an acute abdomen).

Extra-abdominal causes of abdominal pain — Pain perceived as originating in the abdomen may arise from extra-abdominal sites or from acute systemic illness (show table 2) [13]. In patients with herpes zoster, for example, neuropathic pain may sometimes precede the development of skin lesions. An attack of herpes zoster involving the thoracic dermatomes can sometimes cause severe right upper quadrant pain, which can be confused with visceral causes such as acute cholecystitis. (See "Postherpetic neuralgia"). Another example is lower thoracic or epigastric abdominal pain that may accompany acute myocardial infarction or ischemia. (See "Pathophysiology and diagnosis of ischemic chest pain").

UPPER ABDOMINAL PAIN SYNDROMES — The different pain syndromes typically, but not always, have characteristic locations (show table 1).

Biliary disease — Disorders involving the liver, biliary organs, pancreas, kidneys, stomach, intestines, diaphragms, and lung may cause right upper quadrant pain. The biliary tract syndromes are classified according to the source of pain and the pathogenesis of the disorder (eg, distention of a duct, inflammation, or infection).

  bullet Cholelithiasis refers to the presence of gallstones within the gallbladder; it is often asymptomatic.

  bullet Biliary colic is usually caused by the gallbladder contracting in response to a fatty meal and pressing a stone against the gallbladder outlet or cystic duct opening, leading to increased intragallbladder pressure and pain. The term biliary colic is a misnomer, since the pain is not typically colicky. It is entirely visceral in origin, without true gallbladder wall inflammation. Affected patients typically complain of deep and gnawing pain that is occasionally sharp and severe. The pain is localized in the right upper quadrant or epigastrium. As the gallbladder relaxes, the stones often fall back from the cystic duct. As a result, the attack reaches a crescendo over a number of hours and then resolves completely; it may recur multiple times. Biliary colic may be mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome, acute myocardial infarction, and peptic ulcer disease.

  bullet Prolonged or recurrent cystic duct blockage can progress to total obstruction, causing acute cholecystitis. Patients with acute cholecystitis typically complain of abdominal pain, most often in the right upper quadrant or epigastrium with possible radiation to the right shoulder or back. The pain is characteristically steady and severe. Associated complaints may include nausea, vomiting, and anorexia. There is often a history of fatty food ingestion about one hour or more before the initial onset of pain. An episode of prolonged right upper quadrant pain (more than four to six hours), especially if associated with fever, should arouse suspicion for acute cholecystitis as opposed to an attack of simple biliary colic. (See "Clinical features and diagnosis of acute cholecystitis").

  bullet Acute cholangitis occurs when a stone becomes impacted in the biliary or hepatic ducts, causing dilation of the obstructed duct and bacterial superinfection. It is characterized by fever, jaundice, and abdominal pain, although this classic triad occurs in only 50 to 75 percent of cases [14]. The abdominal pain is typically vague and located in the right upper quadrant. (See "Acute cholangitis").

  bullet Gallstone pancreatitis occurs when a gallstone becomes impacted within the ampulla of Vater, occluding drainage of the pancreatic duct. This is the most common cause of acute pancreatitis in the United States [15]. The pain of gallstone pancreatitis is typical of acute pancreatitis (see below and see "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of acute pancreatitis").

Acute pancreatitis — Almost all patients with acute pancreatitis have acute upper abdominal pain at the onset. The pain is steady and may be in the mid-epigastrium, right upper quadrant, diffuse, or, infrequently, confined to the left side. Biliary colic, which may herald or progress to acute pancreatitis, may occur postprandially, while acute pancreatitis related to alcohol frequently occurs one to three days after a binge or cessation of drinking. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of acute pancreatitis").

Unlike biliary colic, which lasts a maximum of six to eight hours, the pain of pancreatitis lasts days. Its onset is rapid, but not as abrupt as that with a perforated viscus; in many cases, the pain of pancreatitis reaches maximum intensity within 10 to 20 minutes. One characteristic of the pain that is present in about one-half of patients and suggests a pancreatic origin is band-like radiation to the back. Painless disease is uncommon (5 to 10 percent) but may be complicated and fatal.

The abdominal pain is typically accompanied (approximately 90 percent) by nausea and vomiting that may persist for many hours. Restlessness, agitation, and relief on bending forward are other notable symptoms. Patients with fulminant attacks may present in shock or coma. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of acute pancreatitis").

Dyspepsia — An international committee of clinical investigators developed the following definition (Rome criteria) of dyspepsia for research purposes, which can also be applied to clinical practice [16]:

  "Dyspepsia is persistent or recurrent abdominal pain or abdominal discomfort centered in the upper abdomen. Discomfort refers to a subjective, negative feeling that does not reach the level of pain according to the patient. Centering refers to pain or discomfort mainly localized to the upper abdomen; it does not exclude patients who have pain or discomfort elsewhere unless they only have pain elsewhere."

The differential diagnosis of dyspepsia includes gastroesophageal reflux disease, biliary disease, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pancreatitis, gastric cancer, drug-induced dyspepsia, psychiatric disease, diabetic gastroparesis, metabolic diseases, gastrointestinal and pancreatic malignancies, ischemic heart disease, and abdominal wall pain. (See "Approach to the patient with dyspepsia" for a detailed description of patient with these syndromes).

Pneumonia — Pneumonia involving the lower lobes of the lung is a common cause of abdominal pain syndromes, presumably related to diaphragmatic irritation, and may be confused with acute cholecystitis or, rarely, an acute abdomen. Abdominal pain is occasionally the sole presenting complaint in a patient with lower lobe pneumonia.

Myocardial infarction — Upper abdominal pain can be the presenting symptom of an acute myocardial infarction. Any patient with cardiac risk factors should have an electrocardiogram.

Splenic abscess and infarct — Left upper quadrant pain often arises from diseases of the spleen (show table 1).

  bullet Splenic abscesses typically are associated with fever and tenderness in the left upper quadrant.

  bullet Splenic infarction presents with severe left upper quadrant pain. This syndrome should be considered in any patient with atrial fibrillation or other conditions associated with peripheral embolism [17].

LOWER ABDOMINAL PAIN SYNDROMES

Appendicitis — Acute appendicitis is a major consideration in the assessment of any patient with acute abdominal disease. Acute appendicitis typically presents with periumbilical pain initially that radiates to the right lower quadrant; however, occasional patients present with epigastric or generalized abdominal pain. The pain localizes to the right lower quadrant when the appendiceal inflammation begins to involve the peritoneal surface. (See "Appendicitis in adults").

Diverticular disease — Uncomplicated diverticulosis is often asymptomatic and an incidental finding on colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. Some of these patients complain of symptoms such as cramping, bloating, flatulence, and irregular defecation. Diverticulitis represents microscopic or macroscopic perforation of a diverticulum.

The clinical presentation of diverticulitis depends upon the severity of the underlying inflammatory process and whether or not complications are present. Left lower quadrant pain is the most common complaint in Western countries, occurring in 70 percent of patients. Right-sided diverticulitis occurs in only 1.5 percent of patients [18]. In contrast, right-sided disease is more common in Asians (accounting for as many as 75 percent of cases of diverticulitis), and affected patients may present with right lower quadrant pain, often leading to a misdiagnosis of acute appendicitis [19,20]. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of colonic diverticular disease").

Pain is often present for several days prior to presentation, which aids in the differentiation of diverticulitis from other causes of acute abdominal symptoms. Only 17 percent in one series had symptoms for less than 24 hours [21]. Another helpful diagnostic finding is that up to one-half have had one or more previous episodes of similar pain. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of colonic diverticular disease").

Kidney stones — Kidney stones usually cause symptoms when the stone passes from the renal pelvis into the ureter. Pain is the most common symptom and varies from a mild and barely noticeable ache, to discomfort that is so intense it requires hospitalization and parenteral medications. The pain typically waxes and wanes in severity and develops in waves or paroxysms that are related to movement of the stone in the ureter and to associated ureteral spasm. Paroxysms of severe pain usually last 20 to 60 minutes.

The site of obstruction determines the location of pain. Upper ureteral or renal pelvic obstruction lead to flank pain or tenderness, whereas lower ureteral obstruction causes pain that may radiate to the ipsilateral testicle, tip of the penis, or labia. The location of the pain may change as the stone migrates; a variable location of pain can be misleading and occasionally mimics an acute abdomen or dissecting aneurysm. In addition, some patients present with abdominal pain in the absence of flank pain. CT scan is the gold standard to confirm the diagnosis (show radiograph 1). (See "Diagnosis and acute management of suspected nephrolithiasis").

Bladder distension — Patients with bladder outlet obstruction leading to acute bladder distension, as may occur in some patients with benign prostatic hypertrophy, can present with lower abdominal pain. (See "Diagnosis of urinary tract obstruction and hydronephrosis", section on Symptoms and signs).

Pelvic pain — Lower abdominal pain in women is frequently due to disorders of the reproductive organs. (See "Women" below).

DIFFUSE ABDOMINAL PAIN SYNDROMES — Diffuse abdominal pain syndromes often represent severe and potentially life-threatening disease. Examples include mesenteric ischemia and infarction, ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, and diffuse peritonitis.

Mesenteric ischemia and infarction — Mesenteric infarction presents with the acute and severe onset of diffuse and persistent abdominal pain, while chronic mesenteric ischemia may be manifested by a variety of symptoms including abdominal pain after eating ("intestinal angina"), weight loss, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea [22]. Ischemia that involves the celiac territory causes epigastric or right upper quadrant pain. (See "Acute mesenteric ischemia" and see "Chronic mesenteric ischemia").

Mesenteric ischemia and infarction are important considerations in elderly patients presenting with acute abdominal pain and in all patients with acute diffuse abdominal pain. These disorders are thought to occur in up to 1 to 2 percent of all patients presenting with severe acute gastrointestinal illness [22]. Infarction typically occurs in patients with known cardiovascular, ischemic, or arteriosclerotic disease. Mesenteric ischemia may be a manifestation of systemic vasculitis involving the gastrointestinal tract. (See "Gastrointestinal manifestations of vasculitis"). Mesenteric venous thrombosis rarely is a cause of abdominal pain and may occur in previously healthy individuals [23].

Angiography or MRI angiography of the celiac artery or mesenteric vessels are the diagnostic tests of choice. Sigmoidoscopy can also suggest the diagnosis in patients with ischemic colitis but is usually not required (show endoscopy 1). (See "Colonic ischemia").

Ruptured aneurysm — A ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm can present with diffuse or localized abdominal symptoms and can mimic other acute conditions such as renal colic, diverticulitis, pancreatitis, inferior wall coronary ischemia, mesenteric ischemia, or biliary tract disease.

The patient with a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm who survives long enough to reach the emergency room classically presents with abdominal or back pain, hypotension, and a pulsatile abdominal mass. Aneurysm rupture typically causes exsanguinating hemorrhage and profound, unstable hypotension. (See "Clinical features and diagnosis of abdominal aortic aneurysm").

Peritonitis — Patients with peritonitis attempt to minimize abdominal pain by lying still, often in a supine position with the knees flexed. The pain may be greatest over the region of the abdomen near the abdominal viscera from which the pain originated (as in acute cholecystitis) but may spread rapidly to involve the entire abdomen as inflammation progresses.

Physical examination may reveal fever and evidence for hypovolemia (tachycardia and hypotension). Abdominal examination should be performed gently, since it can worsen pain. It is usually unnecessary to elicit rebound tenderness (sudden severe pain caused by rapid release of the hand following abdominal palpation), since peritonitis can usually be suspected from more gentle palpation. A similar approach (elicitation of pain after bumping against the bed) is also usually unnecessary. Abdominal wall rigidity (involuntary guarding) may be present due to activation of primary afferent visceral and cutaneous pain receptors [24].

Intestinal obstruction — Severe, acute diffuse abdominal pain can be caused by either partial or complete obstruction of the intestines. The commonest causes in adults are an incarcerated hernia, adhesions, intussusception, and volvulus; these syndromes account for as many as 96 percent of cases [25]. Occasionally, severe constipation leading to fecal impaction can cause large bowel obstruction as can an obstructing colonic carcinoma.

Intestinal obstruction should be considered when the patient complains of pain, vomiting, and constipation. Physical findings of abdominal distention and tenderness to palpation are common.

ABDOMINAL PAIN IN SPECIAL POPULATIONS — Special populations of patients, including women, the elderly [26], patients with AIDS [27], hemophiliacs, and patients with sickle cell disease, may present with unusual causes of abdominal pain or may have unusual presentations of common disorders.

Women — Lower abdominal pain (pelvic pain) in women is frequently caused by disorders of the internal female reproductive organs. The major etiologies of acute pain are: pelvic inflammatory disease; adnexal cysts or masses with bleeding, torsion, or rupture; ectopic pregnancy; and uterine pain due to infection (endomyometritis) or due to degeneration, infarction, or torsion of leiomyomas. Chronic pelvic pain in women is discussed separately. (See "Chronic pelvic pain").

  Pelvic inflammatory disease — Lower abdominal pain is the cardinal presenting symptom in women with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), although the character of the pain may be quite subtle. Recent onset of pain that occurs during menses or coitus or with jarring movement may be the only presenting symptom of PID; the new onset of pain during or shortly after menses is particularly suggestive [28]. The abdominal pain is usually bilateral and rarely of more than two to three weeks duration [29]. (See "Clinical features and diagnosis of pelvic inflammatory disease in adults").

Fever is present in 50 percent, and abnormal uterine bleeding occurs in one-third of patients with PID [30]. New vaginal discharge, urethritis, proctitis, and chills can be associated signs but are neither sensitive nor specific for the diagnosis. The presence of PID is less likely if symptoms referable to the bowel or urinary tract predominate.

  Adnexal pathology — Cysts and neoplasms of the ovary, fallopian tube, or paraovarian or paratubal areas can cause pain due to rupture, bleeding, or torsion. Large size alone, even with compression of adjacent structures, usually does not result in acute pain. (See "Overview of the etiology and evaluation of the adnexal mass").

  bullet The new onset of mid-cycle pain in premenopausal women suggests the presence of a physiologic cyst (follicular or corpus luteum).

  bullet Pain immediately following intercourse is suggestive of a ruptured cyst.

  bullet The sudden onset of severe pain, often associated with nausea and vomiting, is suggestive of ovarian torsion or a degenerating leiomyoma. Acute severe pain simulating appendicitis or peritonitis may also result from perforation, infarction, or hemorrhage into or from an ovarian neoplasm.

  bullet Pain accompanied by fever suggests an infection such as PID, appendicitis, or diverticulitis, but it may be associated with torsion (ovary or leiomyoma) or degeneration (leiomyoma).

Common symptoms of endometriosis include chronic pelvic pain (which is often more severe during menses), dysmenorrhea, dyspareunia, abnormal menstrual bleeding, and infertility. Acute pain, however, may occur due to rupture of an endometrioma. (See "Pathogenesis, clinical features, and diagnosis of endometriosis" and see "Chronic pelvic pain").

  Ectopic pregnancy — Abdominal pain, menstrual cycle abnormalities (missed or late menstrual period), and vaginal bleeding are the classic symptoms of ectopic pregnancy. Clinical manifestations typically appear six to eight weeks after the last normal menstrual period, but they can occur later. Vital signs may reveal orthostatic changes and, occasionally, fever. Findings on physical examination may include adnexal, cervical motion, and/or abdominal tenderness, an adnexal mass, and mild uterine enlargement. However, the physical examination is often unremarkable in a woman with a small, unruptured ectopic pregnancy. A sensitive test for human chorionic gonadotropin will always be positive and serves to distinguish ectopic pregnancy from other causes of lower abdominal pain in women. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of ectopic pregnancy").

  Endometritis — Endometritis refers to inflammation of the endometrium, the inner lining of the uterus. It is characterized by uterine pain, vaginal bleeding, and fever. Sexually transmitted infections and invasive gynecologic procedures are the most common predecessors of acute endometritis in the nonobstetric population. Postpartum infection, usually after a labor concluded by cesarean delivery or after prolonged labor or rupture of membranes with multiple vaginal examinations, is the most frequent antecedent of acute endometritis in the obstetric population. (See "Acute and chronic endometritis").

  Leiomyomas — Leiomyomas (fibroids) infrequently cause acute pain from degeneration (eg, carneous or red degeneration) or torsion of a pedunculated tumor. Pain may be associated with a low grade fever, uterine tenderness on palpation, elevated white blood cell count, or peritoneal signs. The discomfort resulting from degenerating leiomyomas is self-limited, lasting from days to a few weeks, and it usually responds to nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs.

Elderly — Elderly patients often do not present with the same signs and symptoms of disease characteristic of younger individuals. This was illustrated in a retrospective review of 231 patients over the age of 64 who presented to an emergency department with acute (less than one week) nontraumatic abdominal pain [31]. The presence or absence of abnormal test values (hemoglobin, alkaline phosphatase, aspartate aminotransferase, bilirubin, lactate, and leukocytosis) did not distinguish those who were admitted and did not require surgery from patients with surgical disease; clinical suspicion was a more important distinguishing feature. Normal laboratory tests at presentation occurred in 13 percent of patients who ultimately required surgery. Biliary tract disease and small bowel obstruction were common disorders in elderly patients presenting with acute abdominal pain.

In a second review of 168 elderly patients presenting to an emergency department with acute cholecystitis (confirmed later by surgery), 84 percent had neither epigastric nor right upper quadrant pain, and 5 percent had no pain at all [32]. Common presenting symptoms were nausea (57 percent) and vomiting (38 percent). Many patients were afebrile (56 percent), and 13 percent had no fever and normal laboratory studies.

HIV infection — Gastrointestinal and hepatobiliary symptoms are among the most frequent complaints in patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The frequency of abdominal pain as a symptom in patients with AIDS is unknown; however, acute abdominal pain is often a serious finding. In the majority of patients with AIDS, abdominal pain is directly related to HIV and its consequences [33], but the more common causes of abdominal pain in the general population also need to be considered. Many studies of abdominal pain in patients with AIDS stress the broad spectrum of potential causes for this symptom (show table 3) [33,34]. (See "Overview of the gastrointestinal manifestations of AIDS").

Hemophilia — Hemophiliacs may spontaneously develop hematomas of the bowel wall, which can cause symptoms that mimic acute appendicitis [35]. The diagnosis of "pseudo-appendicitis" can usually be made with CT imaging; at times, surgery is required to confirm the diagnosis.

Sickle cell disease — Patients with sickle cell disease may have abdominal pain as part of a vasoocclusive crisis. Such pain may be difficult to distinguish from an acute surgical abdomen (eg, appendicitis, cholecystitis) and may be due to such conditions as cholelithiasis, splenic infarction, pancreatitis, ischemic colitis, and nonsurgical genitourinary disorders [36-39].

Right upper quadrant symptoms are common in the setting of hepatic involvement. (See "Hepatic manifestations of sickle cell disease", section on Acute sickle hepatic crisis).

RARE CAUSES OF ABDOMINAL PAIN — Rare causes of abdominal pain should be considered in the following circumstances [40]:

  bullet Patients with repeated visits to physicians or emergency rooms for the same complaint without a definite diagnosis

  bullet An ill appearing patient with minimal or nonspecific findings

  bullet Pain out of proportion to clinical findings

  bullet Immunocompromised, HIV-infected, or elderly patients (see above)

Celiac artery compression syndrome — The celiac artery compression syndrome is a rare condition that typically occurs in otherwise healthy young and middle-aged individuals. It presents as chronic, epigastric abdominal pain that typically occurs after eating and may be associated with an epigastric bruit and weight loss. The diagnosis is suggested by narrowing or occlusion of the celiac axis on angiography. (See "Celiac artery compression syndrome").

Painful rib syndrome — The painful rib syndrome is an increasingly common condition characterized by discomfort in the lower chest or upper abdomen, tenderness over the costal margins, and reproduction of the pain by pressure on the ribs [41]. This syndrome accounts for as many as 3 percent of new referrals to surgeons for the evaluation of upper abdominal pain. It is most common in women. The syndrome has a benign outcome and is important to recognize and diagnose to avoid unnecessary testing and treatment and to provide reassurance to the patient. In one review, 8 of 76 patients underwent noncurative cholecystectomy [41].

Wandering spleen syndrome — The wandering spleen syndrome is a rare cause of acute abdominal pain that is most typically seen in younger adolescents and children, although it can occur in adults. Patients typically present with acute left upper quadrant pain associated with an abdominal mass. CT imaging confirms the diagnosis. The treatment of choice is splenopexy; splenectomy may be required if the spleen is infarcted and there is torsion and absence of splenic blood flow.

Abdominal wall pain — Pain emanating from the abdominal wall may be difficult to distinguish from deep visceral pain. The pain can originate from a hernia, hematoma, or the abdominal wall musculature. Abdominal wall hernias can be difficult to diagnosis clinically, and CT scan of the abdomen and the abdominal wall are often required. Hematomas of the abdominal wall occur spontaneously or after unrecognized trauma. Abdominal pain originating from the abdominal musculature can be diagnosed by finding a focal area of abdominal tenderness that remains unchanged or increases with abdominal muscle contraction (Carnett's sign). (See "Chronic abdominal wall pain").

Abdominal migraine — Recurrent abdominal pain may occur in patients with abdominal migraine [42]. These patients usually also suffer from typical migraine headaches, although occasional patients present with gastrointestinal symptoms only. (See "Pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis of migraine in adults").

Eosinophilic gastroenteritis — Eosinophilic gastroenteritis is a rare condition that may present with variable symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The signs and symptoms are related to the layer(s) and extent of bowel involved with eosinophilic infiltration: mucosa, muscle, and/or subserosa [43]. The diagnosis is suspected in patients with abdominal pain, diarrhea, and peripheral eosinophilia; it may be confused with the irritable bowel syndrome. (See "Eosinophilic gastroenteritis").

Epiploic appendagitis — Epiploic appendagitis is a benign and self-limited condition of the epiploic appendages that occurs secondary to torsion or spontaneous venous thrombosis of a draining vein. Patients most commonly present with acute abdominal pain. Symptoms can mimic an acute abdomen, frequently leading patients to be misdiagnosed as having acute appendicitis or diverticulitis. (See "Epiploic appendagitis").

Fitz-Hugh-Curtis syndrome — The Fitz-Hugh-Curtis syndrome, or perihepatitis, is a cause of right upper quadrant pain in young women. It occurs in approximately 10 percent of patients with pelvic inflammatory disease caused by Chlamydia trachomatis or Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Physical examination typically reveals marked right upper quadrant tenderness. (See "Clinical features and diagnosis of pelvic inflammatory disease in adults").

Familial Mediterranean fever — The typical manifestations of familial Mediterranean fever are recurrent attacks of severe pain (due to serositis at one or more sites) and fever, lasting one to three days, and then resolving spontaneously. In between attacks, patients feel entirely well. Pain and fever are usually abrupt and reach their peak soon after onset, although some patients tend to have a stereotypic, mild prodrome component of their attacks. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of familial Mediterranean fever").

OTHER CAUSES — Abdominal pain can be caused by myriad illnesses including metabolic disorders ranging from diabetic ketoacidosis to acute intermittent porphyria (see "Acute intermittent porphyria"); abdominal malignancies; lactose intolerance; and helminthic and other tropical infectious diseases. Functional disorders are a common cause of chronic abdominal pain. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome" and see "Functional dyspepsia"). Aortic dissection involving the descending aorta can produce abdominal pain. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of aortic dissection"). Abdominal pain may also be psychogenic in origin; this is most common in adolescents. (See "Somatization").


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