What causes abdominal rigidity? 6 possible conditions

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What Is Abdominal Rigidity?

Abdominal rigidity is a stiffness of your stomach muscles that occurs when the abdomen is touched. This is an involuntary response to prevent pain caused by pressure on your abdomen. Another term for this protective mechanism is “guarding.”

This symptom is not the same as intentionally flexing your abdominal muscles or the rigidity associated with severe gas. Guarding is a completely involuntary response of the muscles. In other words, you have no control over it. It is a sign that your body is trying to protect itself from pain and can be a symptom of a very serious and even life-threatening medical condition.

If you have abdominal rigidity, you should see your doctor right away.

Abdominal Rigidity and Abdominal Pain

Abdominal rigidity and pain often occur together. Every condition that causes abdominal pain can cause guarding. Disorders of your abdominal organs can cause abdominal pain. Organs inside your abdomen include your:

  • liver
  • pancreas
  • gallbladder
  • stomach
  • small and large intestines
  • aorta (main artery)
  • vena cava (main vein)
  • kidneys and ureters

Problems with your pelvic organs can also cause abdominal pain. Your pelvic organs include:

  • bladder and lower ureters
  • uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries (in women)
  • prostate gland (in men)
  • rectum

It is less common to find diseases of the lower lung as a cause of abdominal pain and rigidity, but it does sometimes happen.

Symptoms You Might Have Along With Abdominal Rigidity

Abdominal rigidity is a medical emergency. Symptoms of greatest severity that could mean that you are in a life-or-death situation include:

  • vomiting blood (also called hematemsis)
  • rectal bleeding
  • black, tarry stools (this is associated with bleeding from the stomach or small intestines)
  • fainting
  • inability to eat or drink anything
  • severe vomiting
  • increased abdominal girth (distended abdomen)
  • shock (very low blood pressure)

Other symptoms include:

  • tenderness
  • nausea
  • yellowing of the skin or jaundice
  • loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • feeling of fullness after eating small amounts of food (early satiety)
  • inability to pass gas from the rectum
  • pale skin
  • diarrhea
  • constipation

Common Causes of Abdominal Rigidity

The location of pain varies with the location of the organ that is causing the problem. For medical purposes, your stomach is divided into four sections called quadrants. For instance, stomach ulcers can cause pain in the left upper quadrant of your abdomen where they are located. Gallstones can cause right upper quadrant pain, because they are located in the upper right part of your abdomen.

Abdominal pain can also travel to other areas of the abdomen. Appendicitis can start off as right lower quadrant pain, but the pain can start to move toward your belly button.

The causes of abdominal pain (and rigidity) can be different based on age.

Adults (most common in elderly adults):

  • abscess inside the abdomen
  • cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation)
  • cancer
  • bowel obstruction or blockage
  • perforation or hole in the intestines, stomach, or gall bladder
  • pancreatitis
  • trauma to the abdomen
  • peritonitis

Adolescents:

  • painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea)
  • pelvic inflammatory disease (from sexually transmitted infections)
  • ovarian cysts
  • pregnancy (includes ectopic)
  • peritonitis (inflammation of the tissue lining the abdomen)

Older Children:

  • urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • appendicitis
  • ingested toxins (poisons)

Infants:

  • colic
  • gastroenteritis (digestive irritation caused by a virus)
  • viral infection
  • pyloric stenosis (narrowing of the stomach outlet)

When to Call the Doctor

If you have involuntary abdominal rigidity, you should see a doctor right away to rule out serious problems. Although something as minor as a stomach virus could cause guarding, you will not know until your doctor gives you a proper diagnosis.

Addressing Your Symptoms

Do not attempt to take medication to dull the pain before seeing your doctor. It will alter the pain pattern and make it more difficult for your doctor to diagnose your condition.

When you talk to your doctor, it is helpful for you to be aware of the following:

  • when the symptoms started
  • qualities of the pain (if it’s dull, sharp, occurring off and on, or travels to another area)
  • how long the pain lasts
  • what you were doing when the rigidity/pain began
  • what makes it better
  • what makes it worse
  • other symptoms and when they started
  • time of your last meal (in case you need surgery)

Being aware of these factors will help your doctor establish your diagnosis.

What to Expect When Seeing a Doctor

The first steps in finding the cause of abdominal rigidity are to discuss your medical history. A physical exam will usually reveal the cause. Your doctor may order the following tests:

Blood tests:

  • CBC (complete blood count)
  • serum electrolytes (potassium, sodium, chloride, bicarbonate)
  • BUN (blood urea nitrogen)
  • creatinine (indication of kidney functioning)
  • liver function tests
  • urinalysis
  • test for blood in your stool

Additional tests include:

  • abdominal X-rays (to evaluate for obstruction or perforation)
  • abdominal ultrasound (uses sound waves to make images of abdominal organs)
  • abdominal CT scan (uses high-resolution X-rays to make images of your abdominal organs)

The treatment your doctor chooses to use will depend on the cause of the abdominal rigidity. Obviously, treatment for colic in an infant will be different than treatment for cancer, for instance. While more minor conditions may only require monitoring, self-care, and prescription antibiotics, more serious causes of abdominal rigidity could warrant more aggressive treatments.

Depending on your diagnosis, aggressive treatment can include:

  • intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration
  • nasogastric (feeding) tube to provide nourishment
  • intravenous antibiotics
  • surgery

Long-Term Consequences of Untreated Symptoms

Untreated causes of abdominal rigidity can be fatal. Abdominal infection can cause bacteria to enter the blood. This can cause your blood pressure to fall dangerously low (shock). Severe blood loss can also cause death. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance from prolonged vomiting can cause dangerous heart rhythm problems, shock, and kidney failure.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Appendicitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Appendicitis is inflammation of the appendix, which can be fatal if left untreated. The telltale sign is pain that usually starts as mild cramping, especially on the right side, and becomes more severe over time.

Read more »

2

Peritonitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Peritonitis is the inflammation of a thin layer of tissue inside the abdomen. Caused by bacteria or fungus, it causes tenderness, bloating, fatigue, greying of the skin, and other problems.

Read more »

3

Gall Bladder Inflammation

Gallbladder disease is a term for several types of conditions that can affect your gallbladder, a small pear shaped sac located under the liver. The majority of gallbladder diseases are caused by inflammation due t...

Read more »

4

Colic and Crying

Colic is when your baby cries for three or more hours a day, three or more times a week, for at least three weeks. Symptoms usually appear during your baby's first three to six weeks of life. According t...

Read more »

5

Tetanus

Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and causes muscles to tighten. Commonly called lockjaw, it primarily causes muscle contractions in the jaw and neck. It can be life-threatening.

Read more »

6

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

The aorta carries blood from your heart down to your abdomen, legs, and pelvis. Swollen or bulging aortic walls in the abdomen is known as an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which causes pain.

Read more »

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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