An abdominal lump is a swelling or bulge that emerges from any area of the abdomen. It most often feels soft, but may be firm, depending on its underlying cause.
In most cases, a lump is caused by a hernia—a protrusion of your internal organs through the abdominal muscles. This can be easily corrected with surgery. In rarer cases, the lump may be an undescended testicle or a harmless hematoma or lipoma. In even rarer circumstances, it may be a cancerous tumor.
A hernia causes the majority of lumps in the abdomen. A hernia occurs when your internal organs push through a weakened spot in the abdominal wall. Hernias often appear after you have strained your muscles by lifting something heavy, coughing for a long period, or being constipated.
There are several types of hernias, three of which can produce a noticeable lump.
An inguinal hernia occurs when there is a weakness in the abdominal wall and a part of the intestine or other soft tissue protrudes through it. You will most likely see or feel a lump in your abdomen and will feel pain when coughing, bending, or lifting.
In some cases, there are no symptoms until the condition gets worse. By itself, a hernia is not harmful, but it needs to be repaired surgically because it can cause complications, such as loss of blood flow to the intestines or obstruction of the bowels.
An umbilical hernia is basically the same as an inguinal hernia. However, it is more localized and occurs around the navel. This type of hernia is most common in infants, and will often disappear as the baby’s abdominal wall heals. The classic sign of an umbilical hernia in a baby is outward bulging of the belly button when the infant cries.
Surgery is required to fix an umbilical hernia if it does not heal on its own by the time a child is three years old. The possible complications are similar to those of an inguinal hernia.
An incisional hernia is one that appears due to a surgical cut that has weakened the abdominal wall. It requires corrective surgery to avoid complications.
Less Common Causes
If a hernia does not cause an abdominal lump, there are several other possibilities.
This is a collection of blood under the skin that results from broken blood vessels. It is typically caused by an injury. The hematoma can form a bulge in your abdomen if this is where it occurred, and it will likely cause discoloration of your skin. It will most likely resolve on its own, with no need for treatment.
A lipoma is a lump of fat that collects under the skin. It feels like a firm, rubbery bulge that moves slightly when pushed. Lipomas grow very slowly, can occur anywhere on the body, and are almost always benign. They can be removed surgically, but in most cases, surgery is not necessary.
During fetal development, the testicles form in the abdomen and then descend into the scrotum. In some cases, one or more of them does not fully descend. This may cause a small lump near the groin in newborn boys and can be corrected with hormone therapy or surgery to bring the testicle into position.
Although very rare, a benign or cancerous tumor on an organ in the abdomen or in the skin or muscles can cause a noticeable lump. Whether it requires surgery or another type of treatment depends on the type of tumor and its location.
If you feel or see any type of lump in your abdomen that you cannot identify, make an appointment to see your doctor. If you also have a fever, vomiting, or pain around the lump, you may need emergency care.
At your doctor’s appointment, you can expect to receive a physical examination of your abdomen. Your doctor may ask you to cough or strain in some way while you are examined.
He or she may also ask you questions such as:
- when you noticed the lump
- if it changes in size or location
- what makes it change
- if you have any other symptoms
If you have a hernia, your doctor will likely be able to diagnose it during the physical exam. You can then discuss arrangements for a surgical correction.
If your doctor does not believe the lump is a hernia, it may require further testing. For a hematoma or lipoma, you will likely not need further tests, but if a tumor is suspected, you may need imaging tests to determine its location and extent. You may also need a biopsy (tissue removal) to determine if the tumor is benign or malignant (cancerous).