Should you go to the ER or an urgent care center? Read what a doctor thinks about when you walk in with abdominal pain.
First thoughts when a patient walks in with abdominal pain
First thoughts of a patient with abdominal pain
Q: What do you think about first when a patient walks in with abdominal pain?
A: First it depends on who the patient is. My first thoughts are what's the patient's age, and gender and where is the abdominal pain? These are the sorts of things that start to shape my suspicion on what's likely going on.
Mid 20's female with nausea
Q: What are some common causes of stomach pain for females in their mid 20s?
A: If the patient is a young lady in her mid 20's who's complaining about abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, the first thing that comes to my mind is that she's pregnant. I would want to rule out [pregnancy] right away. You can do that with a urine test or blood test to make sure the woman is not pregnant.
Other things that first come to mind are what's associated with the stomach pain. So, for example, is the abdominal pain associated with diarrhea? If so, that brings into play a whole host of infectious kinds of virus, for example, or norovirus like the . Those are the kinds of things that come to mind immediately.
Older woman with skin changes
Q: What are some common causes of skin changes in woman in their 70s or 80s?
A: If the patient is an older woman in her 70's or 80's and she also has irregular heart beat with skin changes, then I would start to think it's something vascular. In other words, I would be thinking about things like or .
Q: Can alcohol cause stomach pain?
Q: What does bloody diarrhea indicate?
A: If the patient is a mid-aged and has some blood in his or her diarrhea, then I might also think of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
Q: Can stomach pain be caused by kidney stones?
A: Abdominal pain can also be due to kidney stones. If so, I would be asking if the pain is very severe, in the back, and travels down to the groin. I also ask if the patient has seen blood in the urine. Those would make me think of kidney stones
Q: Can stomach ulcers cause abdominal pain?
A: Ulcers in the stomach can cause severe abdominal pain and people often have a history of ulcers.
Not stomach related but manifests as stomach pain
Q: Can pain from other parts of the body affect the stomach area?
A: Sometimes, people can have stomach pain that isn't caused by the stomach. For example, lower pneumonia can manifest as stomach pain. Exertionary heart pain i.e. angina sometimes manifests as gastric discomfort but are actually two different things.
In all, abdominal pain could be caused by one of many and it depends on the symptoms. But those are what I think first.
Factors that give the most clues about what's going on
Q: What are some more specifics to consider regarding other symptoms, pain, and pain location?
A: Pain location and natural of the pain are the first things and then it's the symptoms that are also associated with the abdominal pain. What else is going on? Diarrhea? Nausea and vomiting? Chest pain?
Right upper quadrant abdominal pain
Upper middle quadrant abdominal pain
Belly button or right lower quadrant
If the pain is toward the belly button, I start to think about appendicitis, which is also lower right stomach pain. In that case, the pain that starts from the belly button and radiates toward the right lower side. That's a typical sign of appendicitis.
Lower than belly button
Then I think about urinary infections. Especially if the pain is in the groin area, I think about ovarian cysts or other pregnancy related causes.
Diffuse pain that's all over
Tests ran after initial questioning
Things that are looked for after the initial questioning
Q: What do you look for after the initial questioning and examination?
A: After the initial questioning, I might start to look at the vital signs of the patient. For example, I would want to make sure that there is no fever because if there's fever, that might suggest something infectious or catastrophic. I would order a CBC test to look at the white blood cell count to see if there is an infection. Then I would ask for tests on the pancreas, gallbladder, and liver to make sure there are no problems there. Depending on the situation, I can also ask for a beta-hCG test which is a pregnancy test or look at the lactate level which is to detect ischemia.
Depending on the tests, the treatment options would then vary accordingly.
Signs of Emergency
Symptoms that would cause the patient to go to the emergency room
Q: What symptoms would prompt you to send the patient to the emergency room?
A: It's hard to say exactly but here are a couple of things that would indicate an emergency off the top of my head. This is not exhaustive.
Large amount of blood
If there is a large amount of blood seen in the toilet bowl or vomiting blood would be an emergency. Anyone with something like that should come straight away.
Patients who have such bad nausea that they are not able to eat or take essential medications. They should come right away.
Very high fever
Patients who have an extremely high fever between the range of 102 to 103 or above with abdominal pain should come straight away.
Vaginal bleeding in pregnancy
Patients with severe abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding should come to the ER right away.
A history of heart attack
Patients who have had a heart attack and is now experiencing epigastric pain (upper central abdominal pain) should come immediately.
Diarrhea and vomitting
First, absence of the above symptoms would make me feel better about the patient's situation. In addition, diarrhea in itself is not an emergency but is actually quite common. People get diarrhea from infections all the time. Even diarrhea with vomitting in itself, limited to one or just a few episodes, is not an emergency. They are something you could wait until the next day to visit an urgent care clinic rather than coming into the ER.
Additional fun fact from Dr. King
Any fun facts that the average person wouldn't know that's related to the abdomen?
One thing that's interesting and most people don't know is how much intestines we have in our belly. Even though our belly is a small area, our intestines measure 25 feet long from beginning to end, and since they are lined with a multitude of absorptive pockets, its surface area is about the same as a tennis court! While all these cells enable remarkable absorptive capacity, all these cells can sometimes go haywire and result in various disease states, like colon cancer.