Abdominal rigidity is a state of 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
a completely involuntary response
of the muscles. In other words, you have no control over it. It’s 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
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), and kidneys and ureters. 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 your bladder and lower ureters, uterus, fallopian
tubes, and ovaries (in women), prostate gland (in men), and rectum.
It’s less common to find diseases of the lower lung as a cause of abdominal pain and
rigidity, but it does sometimes happen.
What Causes Abdominal Rigidity?
The location of pain varies with the location of the organ that’s
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. Gallstones can cause right, upper
quadrant pain because they are 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) may experience an abscess
inside the abdomen, cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation), cancer, bowel
obstruction or blockage, or a perforation or hole in the intestines, stomach,
or gall bladder. Pancreatitis, trauma to the abdomen, and peritonitis can also
lead to abdominal pain and rigidity.
Adolescents sometimes have painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea), pelvic
inflammatory disease (from sexually transmitted infections), ovarian cysts, or
peritonitis. 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), appendicitis,
or may have ingested toxins (poisons). Infants can have colic, gastroenteritis
(digestive irritation caused by a virus), a viral infection, or pyloric
stenosis (narrowing of the stomach outlet).
Are the Symptoms that Occur with Abdominal Rigidity?
Abdominal rigidity is nearly always a medical emergency. Severe symptoms
that could indicate a life-or-death situation include vomiting blood (also
called hematemesis), rectal bleeding, black, tarry stools (or melena), fainting,
or an inability to eat or drink anything. Severe vomiting, increased abdominal
girth (distended abdomen), and shock (very low blood pressure) are also signs
of an emergency.
Other symptoms to look for include tenderness, nausea, yellowing
of the skin or jaundice, loss of appetite, and a feeling of fullness after
eating small amounts of food (early satiety). Abdominal rigidity that occurs
with an inability to pass gas from the rectum, pale skin, diarrhea, or constipation
are also reasons to seek medical attention.
Is Abdominal Rigidity Diagnosed?
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 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 for you to be aware of
when the symptoms started, the qualities of the pain (if it’s dull, sharp,
occurring off and on, or travels to another area), how long the pain lasts, and
what you were doing when the rigidity/pain began. Ask yourself what makes it
better and what makes it worse. Your doctor will also want to know any other
symptoms you may have and when they started, and the time of your last meal (in
case you need surgery).
Being aware of these factors will help your doctor establish your
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 also order blood tests, including:
- CBC (complete blood count)
- serum electrolytes (potassium, sodium, chloride,
- BUN (blood urea nitrogen)
- creatinine (indication of kidney functioning)
- ultrasound scan of your abdominal or pelvic
- liver function tests
- test for blood in your stool
Additional tests you may need include abdominal X-rays to
evaluate for obstruction or perforation, an abdominal ultrasound, or an abdominal
Are the Treatment Options for Abdominal Rigidity?
The treatment your doctor chooses 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 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 antibiotic, or surgery.
Are the Complications Associated with Abdominal Rigidity?
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.