What is abdominal rigidity?
Abdominal rigidity is a protective mechanism, also known as guarding, in the abdomen. It is an abdominal pressure-induced response of the muscles of the stomach.
The stomach becomes stiff as an involuntary response to pressure on the abdominal region. This can worsen when the stomach is touched. This is the stomach’s way of guarding itself against pains.
It is different from when you purposefully flex your muscles or the stiffness associated with severe gas.
When abdominal rigidity becomes recurrent, seek medical help.
Abdominal rigidity and abdominal pain
If abdominal rigidity is a response to pain, then any condition that induces abdominal pains will cause an abdominal rigidity. It is therefore right to conclude that abdominal pain and abdominal rigidity coexist.
Appendicitis happens to one of the leading causes of abdominal rigidity.
Disorders in any of the organs located in the abdominal cavity –kidneys, ureter, liver, gallbladder, large and small intestines, stomach, large vein and artery (vena cava and aorta respectively) and pancreas – can cause abdominal pains.
And do those in the pelvic regions. Organs in the pelvis include; fallopian tubes, uterus, lower ureters, ovaries, rectum, prostate gland in men, and bladder.
Lower lung abnormalities can sometimes also cause abdominal pain and stiffness.
Photo Credit: Anastasia Gepp
Causes of abdominal rigidity
It is mostly age-dependent, especially in elderly adults. Younger persons can also experience this in certain conditions as you will see later in this article.
Some of these causes are;
- Abdominal trauma
- pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- abdominal abscess
- inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis)
- intestinal blockage
It can also be caused by holes in the stomach, gallbladder, or intestines.
In adolescent women:
- Dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease contracted from sexually transmitted infections
- Ovarian cysts
In older children:
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Ingested poison
- Gastroenteritis (digestive irritation caused by a virus)
- Viral infection
- Pyloric stenosis (narrowing of the stomach outlet)
There is something interesting about abdominal pains. They are mobile. They can be projected. That is they can travel cause organs that are not actually diseased to feel their pains. This kind of pain is called referred pains.
For example, appendicitis can begin as a right, lower quadrant pain, and then transit to the belly button.
Stomach ulcers refer pains to the upper and left quadrant of your abdomen. Gallstones project pains to the upper left upper quadrant of your abdomen because they are found in the upper right part of the abdomen.
Symptoms associated with abdominal rigidity
- Hematemesis (the vomiting of blood)
- Rectal bleeding
- Melena (black, tarry stools)
- Inability to eat or drink
- Nausea and severe vomiting
- Distended abdomen
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
- Appetite loss
- Early satiety (feeling of fullness after eating small amounts of food)
- Inability to pass gas from the rectum
Diagnosis of abdominal rigidity
It is always advisable not to resort to self-help to alleviate the pains should you experience abnormal rigidity especially if it persists for days. Doing this can make it really difficult for the doctor to diagnose you properly.
When you visit a doctor, you will be asked the following questions:
- When did the symptoms start?
- Are the pains dull, sharp, reoccurring (coming on and off), or travels to another area of your body?
- How long do the pains last?
- What were you doing when the pains began?
- What made the pains better or worse?
- Did you experience other symptoms other than the pains?
- When did you start experiencing those symptoms?
- When did you take your last meal?
Answering these questions will help the doctor decide on what action to take next.
After reviewing your medical history, a physical examination will be conducted on you.
Next, after a physical examination, the doctor may instruct that you go for the following tests;
- Abdominal ultrasound scans for your abdominal or pelvic regions
- Abdominal X-rays
- Abdominal CT scan
- Complete blood count
- Creatinine test (an indication of kidney functioning)
- Liver function tests
- Serum electrolytes test to assess your potassium, sodium, chloride and bicarbonate concentration
- Blood urea nitrogen test
- Stool test to check for the presence of blood in it.
Treatment options for abdominal rigidity
Treatment depends on the cause. It might be mild or aggressive.
Mild cases will require self-care, monitoring, self-care, or prescription of antibiotics based on the underlying cause.
If the case is severe, aggressive treatment will be adopted. Examples include;
- Intravenous fluids therapy to prevent dehydration
- Nasogastric feeding where you are fed through a tube connected to your nose
- Intravenous antibiotics