Acute Abdomen: What Is It?

Understanding How Abdominal Pain Is Diagnosed and Treated

Woman on bed with cramps

Definition: The term acute abdomen refers to abdominal pain that begins suddenly and is severe in nature.

The Acute Abdomen

There are many causes for the abrupt onset of abdominal pain, also known as an acute abdomen.  It is the sheer number of possibilities that makes diagnoses and treatment of abdominal pain so complex.  Abdominal pain can be caused by things as simple as eating beans and having gas, eating too much cheese and becoming constipated, or even menstrual cramps.

 These problems are neither serious nor life-threatening and require minimal treatment.  

So what is the problem?  People who report abdominal pain can have one of those common and minor issues, or they can have a life-threatening condition like appendicitis, an ectopic pregnancy or peritonitis.

So while the patient with constipation doesn't want ten thousand dollars worth of tests just to find out they need a stool softener, the patient who really needs emergency surgery doesn't want to be diagnosed with gas and sent home being told to use Beano when they eat beans.  No physician wants to miss the diagnosis of a more serious condition like a blood clot, pancreatitis, gall bladder attacks or diverticulitis.

Diagnosing the Acute Abdomen

The physical examination is the first step in diagnosing the cause of abdominal pain. This can help narrow down the potential list of problems they may be present, as different issues present with pain in different parts of the belly.

 Along with the physical exam, lab tests are often done to see if blood work shows sign of infection or other problems.  

Imaging tests, such as a CT or MRI may also be done, to rule out more serious issues that may be present.  If these tests do not provide answers, the patient may be admitted to the hospital to be seen by a specialist, such as a general surgeon or a gastroenterologist.


The Acute Abdomen and Surgery

While an acute abdomen doesn't necessarily mean surgery is necessary, but some of the causes of sudden abdominal pain do require surgical intervention. It is essential that serious abdominal problems are diagnosed quickly and accurately, as some of the problems that cause an acute abdomen can be life-threatening.  

Appendicitis is a well-known cause of an acute abdomen that requires surgical treatment.

Also Known As: surgical abdomen, acute surgical abdomen, peritonitis, colic, colicy abdomen, acute abdominal pain,

Common Misspellings: acut, aqute, acoot, aquet, acut abdomen, acute abdmen, acute abdoman, surgical abdoman,

Examples: The patient experienced sudden and severe stomach pain and was taken to the emergency room to rule out an acute abdomen.