Abdominal rigidity is stiffness of your stomach muscles that worsens when you touch, or someone else touches, your abdomen.
This is an involuntary response to prevent pain caused by pressure on your abdomen. Another term for this protective mechanism is guarding.
This symptom isn’t the same as intentionally flexing your abdominal muscles or the rigidity associated with severe gas. Guarding is an involuntary response of the muscles.
Guarding is a sign that your body is trying to protect itself from pain. It 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 pain often occur together. Every condition that causes abdominal pain can cause guarding. Disorders of your abdominal organs can cause abdominal pain. The location of pain depends on the location of the organ causing the problem.
Your stomach is divided into four sections called quadrants. For instance, stomach ulcers can cause pain in the upper left quadrant of your abdomen.
Gallstones can cause right upper quadrant pain because they’re in the upper right part of your abdomen.
Abdominal pain can also travel to other areas of the abdomen. Appendicitis can start as lower right quadrant pain, but the pain can move toward your belly button.
One of the most common abdominal causes of rigidity is appendicitis.
Problems with your pelvic organs can also cause abdominal pain. Your pelvic organs include:
In older adults
The causes of abdominal pain — and rigidity — can be different based on age. Adults, primarily older adults, may experience:
- abscess inside the abdomen
- cholecystitis, or gallbladder inflammation
- bowel obstruction or blockage
- perforation or hole in the intestines, stomach, or gall bladder
Other conditions that can lead to abdominal pain and rigidity include:
- trauma to the abdomen
Adolescents sometimes experience:
- painful menstruation, or dysmenorrhea
- pelvic inflammatory disease from sexually transmitted infections
- ovarian cysts
Adolescent women may also have abdominal pain and rigidity if they’re pregnant, including an ectopic pregnancy.
Older children may experience:
- urinary tract infections (UTIs)
They may experience abdominal pain if they’ve ingested toxins, or poisons.
Infants may experience:
- gastroenteritis, or digestive irritation caused by a virus
- viral infection
- pyloric stenosis, or narrowing of the stomach outlet
Abdominal rigidity is usually a medical emergency. Severe symptoms that could indicate a life-threatening situation include:
- vomiting blood, or hematemesis
- rectal bleeding
- black, tarry stools, or melena
- inability to eat or drink anything
Other signs of an emergency could include:
- severe vomiting
- increased abdominal girth, or distended abdomen
- shock, which results from very low blood pressure
Other symptoms to look for include:
- yellowing of the skin, or jaundice
- loss of appetite
- feeling of fullness after eating small amounts of food, or early satiety
Abdominal rigidity that occurs with an inability to:
These issues are also reasons to seek medical attention.
If you have involuntary abdominal rigidity, you should see a doctor right away to rule out serious problem.
Something as minor as a stomach virus could cause guarding. You won’t know until your doctor gives you a proper diagnosis.
Don’t 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’s helpful to be aware of the following:
- when the symptoms started
- the qualities of the pain, or whether 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 symptoms better or worse
Your doctor will also want to know any other symptoms you have and when you last ate, in case you need surgery.
Knowing these factors will help your doctor make a diagnosis.
The first step in finding the cause of abdominal rigidity is to discuss your medical history. A physical exam will usually reveal the cause. Your doctor may also order blood tests, including:
- complete blood count (CBC)
- serum electrolytes (potassium, sodium, chloride, bicarbonate)
- blood urea nitrogen (BUN)
- creatinine (indication of kidney functioning)
- ultrasound scan of your abdominal or pelvic regions
- liver function tests
- test for blood in your stool
Additional tests may include abdominal X-rays to evaluate for obstruction or perforation, or an abdominal CT scan.
The treatment your doctor chooses will depend on the cause of the abdominal rigidity. For example, treatment for colic in an infant will be different than treatment for cancer.
Minor conditions may only require:
- prescription antibiotics
More serious causes of abdominal rigidity could warrant more aggressive treatments.
Depending on your diagnosis, aggressive treatments can include:
- intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration
- nasogastric (feeding) tube to provide nourishment
- intravenous antibiotic
Untreated causes of abdominal rigidity can be life-threatening. Abdominal infection can cause bacteria to enter the blood. This can cause your blood pressure to fall dangerously low, resulting in shock.
Severe blood loss can also be life-threatening.
Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance from prolonged vomiting can cause: