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Acute abdominal distress or acute abdomen is characterized by the sudden onset of severe abdominal pain and discomfort. Many people associate acute abdominal symptoms to simple indigestion that would resolve and “go away.” Although most cases of acute abdominal distress are temporary, some people may experience pain that does not go away or that becomes so severe.

The abdominal cavity houses a number of organs and tissues where the pain may originate. Aside from indigestion, which is the most common cause of abdominal distress, other possible problems include:

  • Appendicitis
  • Inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis)
  • Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
  • Inflammation of abdominal cavity membranes (peritonitis)
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Kidney stones
  • Perforated ulcer
  • Strangulated hernia
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Aneurysm or rupture of an abdominal blood vessel

Acute abdomen may result in general symptoms that include:

  • Pain (widespread or generalized)
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid pulse
  • Abdominal distention
  • Fever
  • Rigid abdomen
  • Tenderness
  • Guarding behavior
  • Fear
  • Signs of shock (if there is internal bleeding or a major infection)
  • Possible bleeding from the rectum or blood in the urine.

Some individuals may report other symptoms that include weakness, restlessness, pain at movement, and assuming curled position.

Signs and symptoms of abdominal distress should not be taken lightly. The initial emergency care you provide can be critical for the condition of the patient.  In case the symptoms continue to get worse, do not try to diagnose or guess the nature of the problem, instead transport the individual or call for emergency help.

You should also:

  • Maintain an open airway. Prepare for possible vomiting.
  • Monitor for signs of shock and be ready to provide first aid.
  • Assist the individual to his side with knees flexed. Stay alert for vomiting.
  • Provide reassurance.
  • If supplemental oxygen is available, provide oxygen if there are symptoms of difficulty breathing or shallow breathing.
  • Do not give anything by mouth.
  • If possible, get details about the symptoms of the patient such as the time of onset, the nature of pain (sharp, gnawing, stabbing), if it was sudden or gradual, any changes in bowel movement and characteristic of stool (dark, tarry stool), any fever or chills, and if there are signs of bleeding. Find out what was last consumed and when the patient last ate.
  • Try save vomitus for possible laboratory test. However, make sure to avoid contact with ALL discharges and body fluids to prevent contracting communicable diseases.

Although most cases of abdominal distress end up as indigestion, they should be thoroughly diagnosed to prevent misdiagnosis. Physical examination and laboratory tests are necessary for the accurate diagnosis of abdominal distress. It is important to take the patient to the nearest medical facility for complete medical evaluation.