Abdominal Swelling: 10 Causes & Symptoms
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10 causes abdominal swelling
Common gastrointestinal causes
Common causes of abdominal swelling include the following.
- Heartburn: Heartburn, or dyspepsia, is abdominal pain or burning along with bloating or feeling full after meals. It is very common and typically has no known underlying cause. Heartburn may be the cause of mild abdominal bloating or swelling.
- Irritable bowel: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a very common cause of abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation. Typically, patients either have either diarrhea or constipation, but can also have alternating diarrhea and constipation. IBS is known as a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which means there is no underlying structural problem to account for the symptoms.
- Bacterial overgrowth: There are millions of bacteria in a normal, healthy gastrointestinal system. However, some people experience an overgrowth of abnormal bacteria in place of good bacteria which can cause abdominal bloating or swelling. Typically, bacterial overgrowth presents with abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating, gas, and diarrhea, and is usually located in the small intestines.
- Constipation: Constipation is very common in the adult population and can be associated with a variety of medications, medical conditions, or lifestyle factors. Constipation can present with abdominal pain or discomfort and abdominal swelling symptoms.
Serious underlying illnesses
Abdominal swelling may be due to a serious underlying illness, such as the following.
- Blockage in the intestine: There are a variety of medical conditions that can lead to blockage in the intestines, also known as bowel obstruction. Some common causes include scar tissue from prior surgery, hernias, tumors, or gallstone. Typically, blockages present with abrupt pain, nausea, vomiting and abdominal distension. You will also be unable to pass stool or gas.
- Fluid in the abdomen: There are a variety of medical conditions that can lead to fluid building up in the abdomen, also called ascites, which leads to abdominal distention or swelling. Some of the most common causes include end-stage liver disease (cirrhosis) , heart failure, or cancer. In many cases, abdominal distension from fluid in the abdomen is painless.
- Cancer: Any large tumor in the abdomen can lead to abdominal distension or swelling, either as a direct result of the growing tumor or from inflammation or fluid surrounding it. This swelling is typically painless, but you may have other symptoms like weight loss, fevers, or night sweats.
Lactose is a sugar that naturally occurs in milk. Someone is considered "lactose intolerant" when the small intestine cannot produce enough of the enzyme that digests lactose called lactase.
The earliest sign of pregnancy is typically a missed period, but many women do experience symptoms shortly after conception:
- Implantation bleeding may occur after six to twelve days, when the fertilized egg implants itself into the lining of the uterus. This can cause mild cramping with light bleeding or spotting.
- Fatigue and increased desire to sleep may happen within a week.
- Breast tenderness can start as soon as one to two weeks.
- Nausea ("morning sickness") can occur after two to eight weeks.
If pregnancy is suspected, testing should be done so that proper prenatal care can begin. It's important to avoid some behaviors during pregnancy, such as drinking alcohol or using certain drugs or medications, so an early diagnosis should be made.
Over-the-counter home pregnancy tests are available at any drugstore. A positive test is almost certainly correct, but a negative test in the face of other symptoms may be a false negative and should be tried again after a week.
During her reproductive years, a woman's ovaries release a single egg cell each month. But sometimes the egg remains on the surface of the ovary, where the follicle that enclosed it continues to grow. It then becomes a fluid-filled ovarian cyst.
Ovarian cysts may be caused by hormonal imbalances; by endometriosis tissue, if it attaches to the ovary; and by severe pelvic infections that spread to the ovaries. Cysts may also form during pregnancy.
Small ovarian cysts often cause no symptoms. Larger cysts may cause pelvic pain, backache, unexplained weight gain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and/or pain during sex. Ovarian cysts are almost never a form of cancer.
Sudden, severe abdominal pain could indicate a ruptured cyst. This is a medical emergency and the patient should go to an emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through ultrasound.
Hormonal birth control, such as the pill, injection, or patch, prevents ovulation and therefore prevents the formation of cysts. Surgery to remove the cyst may be necessary in some cases.
Top Symptoms: stomach bloating, vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, lower abdominal pain, lower back pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Uterine fibroids are benign growths in the wall of the uterus and most often appear during childbearing years. Fibroids are almost never associated with cancer.
Those at higher risk include black women and women who started their periods at a young age. Other risk factors are vitamin D deficiency, poor diet, obesity, drinking alcohol, and family history of fibroids.
Fibroids can cause pelvic pressure and pain, severe menstrual cramping, and heavy menstrual bleeding that leads to anemia. Quality of life is diminished due to the chronic pain and discomfort. Though fibroids don't always make it impossible to become pregnant, infertility and pregnancy loss may occur as well as pre-term delivery.
Fibroids can be diagnosed through a routine pelvic exam or ultrasound in a doctor's office.
A gynecologist can prescribe various medications to ease the symptoms and regulate the menstrual cycle. There are also a number of surgical techniques, some minimally invasive, to shrink or remove the fibroids while leaving the uterus in place. Hysterectomy, or removal of the uterus, is an option in some cases.
Top Symptoms: vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, irregular period
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. Scar tissue forms because of injury or long-term disease. In the United States, alcoholism and Hepatitis C are the most common causes. Scar tissue cannot do what healthy liver tissue does - make protein, help fight infections, clean the blood, help digest food and store energy.
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Ovarian cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the ovaries, the reproductive organ in women responsible for producing eggs. Risk factors for developing ovarian cancer include familial genetic syndromes, increasing age, obesity or weight gain, starting menses at an early age, undergoing menopa...
The liver is a large and important organ in the right side of your belly, just under your lower ribs. It is responsible for countless functions from clearing toxins to processing nutrients to producing vital blood proteins. As a result, liver failure can cause a wide array of symptoms, but the mos...
Acute compartment syndrome describes the damage done to certain muscle groups of the arms or legs after a traumatic injury.
All of the long muscles are bundled into sections – "compartments" – by the white sheets of strong, tough connective tissue called fascia. If something interferes with circulation so that blood flow is trapped within the compartment, pressure rises because the fascia cannot stretch. This causes serious damage to the muscles and other tissues within the compartment.
Acute compartment syndrome is caused by a broken bone; a crush injury; burns, due to scarred and tightened skin; and bandages or casts applied before an injury has stopped swelling.
Symptoms can rapidly intensify. They include severe pain and tightness in the muscle; tingling or burning sensation; and sometimes numbness and weakness.
Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency which can result in loss of the limb. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination.
Treatment involves hospitalization for emergency surgery and, in some cases, skin graft.
Top Symptoms: arm numbness, hand numbness, foot numbness, pain in one leg, thigh numbness
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Small bowel obstruction
The small bowel, or small intestine, is a long, coiled, tube-like structure that connects the stomach to the large intestine (the large bowel, or colon.) If the small bowel is blocked for any reason, food and liquid cannot pass through. This is a medical emergency.
There a number of possible causes. Scar tissue called adhesions can form after any abdominal surgery (including Caesarean section.) Inflammation from Crohn's disease or diverticulitis causes the intestinal wall to thicken and narrow. Hernias or tumors can also cause blockage.
Symptoms include inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas; abdominal cramping and swelling; loss of appetite; and vomiting.
If not treated, a small bowel obstruction can cut off the blood supply to the small intestine. This leads to tissue death, which can then tear and cause an infection in the abdominal cavity called peritonitis. Both of these are medical emergencies.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-ray, CT scan, and/or ultrasound.
Once diagnosed, most patients are hospitalized. Surgery may be necessary to clear the obstruction.
Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, stomach bloating, being severely ill, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps)
Symptoms that always occur with small bowel obstruction: being severely ill
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Other causes of abdominal swelling
Other causes of abdominal swelling include the following.
- Skin infection: If the swelling is limited to one section of the abdomen, it may be due to an infection in the skin. Typically, skin infections cause localized redness, swelling, and tenderness. Skin infections are typically caused by bacteria and treated with antibiotics.
- Obesity: Increased abdominal girth over time can be due to weight gain or obesity.
Hallmarks of abdominal swelling
Abdominal swelling is a bothersome, uncomfortable symptom that can leave feeling more full than you are and that your pants are suddenly two sizes too small. It can be due to common gastrointestinal disorders like heartburn, constipation, or irritable bowel syndrome or disease, and these conditions typically bring discomfort and pain. More serious causes of abdominal swelling include intestinal blockage, fluid in the abdomen, or cancer. Obesity, pregnancy, and local skin infections may also cause abdominal swelling symptoms. In many cases, abdominal swelling can be treated at home with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter remedies. However, the more serious causes of abdominal swelling require evaluation and treatment by a physician.
Common accompanying symptoms of abdominal swelling
If you're experiencing abdominal swelling, you may also experience:
Abdominal swelling treatments
Many causes of abdominal swelling — especially if it's just a little bloating — can be managed effectively at home. For example, there are many over-the-counter and natural remedies for constipation and heartburn. If you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms that might be food-related, try to avoid the offending foods and change your diet. However, some causes of abdominal swelling should be evaluated by a physician. Imaging, prescription medication, and surgery are all possible treatments your physician may recommend depending on your specific symptoms and the determined cause.
When abdominal swelling is an emergency
Seek emergency abdominal swelling treatment if you experience very severe abdominal pain with nausea or vomiting.
At-home abdominal swelling treatments
You may find relief from abdominal swelling with the following at-home treatments.
- Lifestyle changes: If you believe your constipation, irritable bowel, or heartburn is due to a specific type of food, try avoiding the food to help relieve symptoms. Some common offenders for heartburn include fatty foods or acidic foods like coffee, tomatoes, or citrus. Some common offenders for constipation include dairy, white rice or bread, and bananas.
- Natural constipation remedies: There are many popular natural remedies for constipation including taking magnesium supplements, increasing your fiber intake, or increasing your intake of probiotic foods or supplements.
- Over-the-counter medications: There are many over-the-counter medications that can treat constipation or heartburn if they are the cause of your abdominal swelling.
- Enema: An enema is placed into the rectum to relieve constipation. Many are available over-the-counter.
Medical treatments for abdominal swelling
After consulting your physician, he or she may recommend the following measures.
- Imaging: Your doctor may order X-rays, ultrasound, or CT scans if they suspect an intestinal blockage, fluid in the abdomen, or other possible structural causes of abdominal swelling.
- Endoscopy (esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD) or colonoscopy: If your doctor suspects your abdominal swelling is related to a medical condition, they may recommend a type of imaging that requires using a scope to look at the inside of the gastrointestinal tract, either through the mouth or through the rectum.
- Medications: Your doctor can prescribe various medications to treat heartburn, bacterial overgrowth, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, or infections that may be causing your abdominal swelling.
- Surgery: This is unlikely, however, if a blockage in the intestines is causing abdominal swelling, a doctor may recommend surgery to treat the problem. In this case, your doctor would discuss the risks and benefits of surgery as a treatment for the condition.
Questions your doctor may ask about abdominal swelling
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you experienced any nausea?
- Have you lost your appetite recently?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Dr. Martin is an Emergency Medicine resident at the University of Washington in Seattle. She received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University where she majored in Human Biology, and received her MD from the University of Pennsylvania. She’s interested in Emergency Medical Services and Flight Medicine, and is currently a resident flight physician with Airlift Northwest. In her free time, she enjoys playing ultimate frisbee, cycling, rock climbing, and trail running!
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- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. Wikipedia. Published September 6, 2018.
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- Understanding Bloating and Distension. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Published August 10, 2018.
- Cirrhosis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
- Bloating. Wikipedia. Updated August, 2018.
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- Bae SH. Diets for Constipation. Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition. Published December, 2014.
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