An abdominal mass is an abnormal growth in the abdomen. An abdominal mass causes visible swelling and may change the shape of the abdomen. A person with an abdominal mass may notice weight gain and symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, pain, and bloating.
Masses in the abdomen are often described by their location. The abdomen is divided into four sections called quadrants. An abdominal mass may occur in the right upper quadrant, left upper quadrant, right lower quadrant, or left lower quadrant. The stomach is also divided into two sections: the epigastric section and the periumbilical section. The periumbilical section is located below and around the belly button; the epigastric section is located above the belly button and below the ribs.
Abdominal masses are often treatable. However, health complications may arise depending on the cause of the mass.
What causes an abdominal mass?
Abdominal masses can be the result of a number of factors, including an injury, cyst, benign tumor, cancer, or other disease.
A cyst is an abnormal mass in the body that is filled with fluid or infected matter. It is sometimes to blame for an abdominal mass.
Cysts that commonly cause abdominal masses include:
- ovarian cysts — cysts that form in or around the ovaries
- cholecystitis — often caused by gallstones (abnormal mass of hardened digestive fluid) that block the tube leading out of the gallbladder, causing gallbladder inflammation.
Cancers that often cause abdominal masses include:
- colon cancer
- kidney cancer
- liver cancer
- stomach cancer
Certain diseases may also cause abdominal masses. These diseases include:
- Crohn’s disease — an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes inflammation of your digestive track lining
- abdominal aortic aneurysm — an enlargement and/or protrusion of the large blood vessel that supplies blood to the abdomen, pelvis, and legs
- pancreatic abscess — a pus-filled hollow in the pancreas
- diverticulitis — inflammation or infection of the diverticula, common pouches that form in weak places in the intestines and colon
- hydronephrosis — enlarged kidney due to the backup of urine
- enlarged liver
- splenic enlargement
Signs and symptoms of an abdominal mass
Signs of an abdominal mass include:
- swelling in the area affected
- pain (in abdomen)
- abdominal fullness
- unintentional weight gain
- inability to urinate
- inability to pass stool
Abdominal masses may be hard, soft, stable, or moveable.
How are abdominal masses diagnosed?
After going over your medical history, including your symptoms and when they began, the doctor will have a good idea of where the mass is located. This will lead him or her to determine which organs or surrounding structures are affected by the abdominal mass. During a physical examination, your doctor will ask that you lie back while he or she gently presses on various areas of your abdomen. This examination helps the doctor to locate the mass or any enlarged organs, and to see if and where you are experiencing tenderness.
An imaging test is usually ordered to determine the size and location of the mass. An imaging test can also determine what type of mass is in the abdomen. Imaging tests that are commonly ordered for this purpose are:
- abdominal computed axial tomography (CAT) scan
- abdominal X-ray
- abdominal ultrasound
When imaging tests are not enough, the doctor may wish to take a closer look at the area involved. This is especially true if the digestive system is involved. To look in the digestive system, the doctor uses a small microscope housed in a tube-like structure. This tube is inserted into your colon (an organ of your digestive system). This procedure is called a colonoscopy.
A blood test (complete blood count) may also be ordered to check your hormone levels and for the presence of infection. Women who have ovarian cysts will require a special imaging scan called a transvaginal ultrasound. Unlike an abdominal ultrasound, which views organs on the inside by sliding a probe over the abdomen, a transvaginal ultrasound is performed by inserting a probe into the vagina. This allows the doctor to have a closer look at the uterus and ovaries.
How are abdominal masses treated?
Depending on the cause of the mass, treatment may consist of medication, surgery, or specialized care.
The most common treatment options to eliminate abdominal masses include:
- medications to correct hormones
- surgical removal of the mass
- methods to shrink the mass
- radiation therapy
If you have cysts in the abdomen that are large and/or causing considerable pain, your doctor may opt to remove them through surgery. Surgical removal is also used to remove tumors. However, if removal is dangerous, the surgeon may suggest methods to shrink the mass instead.
Chemotherapy or radiation treatment may also be suggested to shrink the mass. Once the mass reaches a smaller size, the doctor may opt to end the chemotherapy and remove the mass through surgery. This option is often used for people who have cancerous abdominal masses.
Masses that are caused by changes in hormones, such as ovarian cysts, may be treated through hormone replacement medication or low dose hormone birth control pills.
Future health complications
Abdominal masses that choke off organs may damage the organ. If any part of the organ is damaged, it may need to be removed surgically. If there are multiple masses in the abdomen, you may need several forms of treatment or surgical procedures to eliminate the masses. Cancerous masses may come back after treatment.
Women with polycystic ovary syndrome may develop multiple cysts in their ovaries on a monthly basis. These cysts may go away without treatment but some may grow large enough to warrant surgical removal.