IM Board Review

Not all abdominal pain is gastrointestinal

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A 31-year-old woman presents to the office with a chief complaint of right mid-abdominal pain that began 1 day ago. She says she did not seek medical attention earlier because she had to be at work that morning and she thought the pain would resolve on its own.

She reports no fever, headache, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, malaise, loss of weight, melena, or changes in bowel habits. She describes the pain as sharp, localized to the right side, and radiating to the vulva upon sitting up. She denies any association of pain with current dietary habits or bowel function. She has no recollection of precipitating or alleviating factors, including the use of analgesics to reduce the pain.

On further discussion, she mentions that 1 year ago she began experiencing chronic abdominal pain, which she says is sometimes exacerbated by coughing, by standing for extended periods of time, and during menses, and is alleviated upon lying down.

She has regular menstrual periods, and her last one ended 7 days ago.

Her surgical history includes two uncomplicated cesarean deliveries. She does not use tobacco, alcohol, or illicit substances. She is not aware of any allergies to drugs or foods.

She appears to be in no acute distress and has been sitting quietly thus far. She seems to have positioned her hand on her abdomen over the corresponding area of pain.

On physical examination, vital signs are within normal limits, and she is alert and oriented to person, place, and time. Her sclerae are anicteric, and the pupils are equal, round, and reactive to light.

Her complete blood cell count, metabolic panel, and initial imaging tests are normal

Cardiovascular and pulmonary examinations are also within normal limits. Examination of the abdomen elicits tenderness and guarding along the lateral border of the rectus abdominis muscle on the right side at the level of umbilicus, with no rebound tenderness or rigidity. The liver and spleen are not enlarged, and no abdominal mass is detected. No skin rash, joint swelling, or peripheral edema is noted. A neurologic examination is normal.

1. With the information provided, which of the following is least likely to be causing her symptoms?

  • Chronic mesenteric ischemia
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Acute cholecystitis
  • Slipping rib syndrome


Chronic mesenteric ischemia is the least likely diagnosis because the patient lacks risk factors for atherosclerosis and because she does not have postprandial pain, which is pathognomonic for chronic mesenteric ischemia. It is thought to be caused by a decrease in blood flow through the splanchnic vessels.1 Symptoms tend to arise after eating because of a postprandial increase in metabolic demands.1 These patients also often have atherosclerotic risk factors such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and smoking causing coronary artery disease, or a history of stroke.

The primary symptom is abdominal pain, most often described as achy, crampy, or spastic episodes of pain, usually occurring within 2 hours of eating.2 Weight loss is common, as patients can develop a fear of eating. Postprandial pain may also be associated with nausea, vomiting, and bloating.

Findings on clinical examination are usually less severe than the actual symptoms. Visceral duplex or multidetector computed tomography (CT) is an excellent tool to detect blood flow in potential stenotic vessels.2


Peptic ulcer disease is not a likely diagnosis in this patient because she has no history of taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

A study of US patients between 1997 and 2007 reported an annual incidence of peptic ulcer disease of 0.05% to 0.19% depending on the method of diagnosis.3 Peptic ulcer is thought to result from increased gastric acid secretion with a resultant inflammatory response, leading to erosion and ulceration.

The most common possible catalysts include Helicobacter pylori infection, NSAIDs, smoking, alcohol use, and hypersecretory states such as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.4–6 Complications include internal bleeding, perforation causing peritonitis, and penetration to adjacent organs.


Peptic ulcer is the result of an increase in the normal level of gastric acid and a decrease in the protective ability of the gastric mucosa.7 Cytoprotection may be lost through a decrease in the products of arachidonic acid metabolism (eg, prostaglandins, which have a protective effect) or an increase in leukotriene B4 (LTB4), which has a damaging effect. Prostaglandins are thought not only to protect the normal gastric mucosa, but also to provide an antisecretory effect.

On the other hand, leukotrienes—specifically LTB4 and LTC4—are proinflammatory agents and can damage the gastric mucosa. NSAIDs enhance the production of leuko­trienes through the 5-lipoxygenase pathway. The ability of LTB4 to cause degranulation and release of lysosomal enzymes may play a vital role in the inflammatory response to NSAIDs.8–10 LTC4 may promote gastric mucosal damage through a reduction of tissue perfusion resulting from the promotion of vascular stasis.8,11,12

Symptoms help differentiate ulcer type

The classic symptom is burning epigastric pain after meals. Pain that occurs immediately after meals is a classic symptom of gastric ulcer. Pain that occurs 2 to 3 hours after meals and that is relieved by food or antacids is a strong indicator of duodenal ulcer.13 Other symptoms include dyspepsia, bloating, distention, heartburn, and chest discomfort.13

Accurate diagnosis is vital in selecting the proper treatment. Diagnostic tests may include H pylori testing, upper-gastrointestinal endoscopy, and radiography with barium swallow.


In cholecystitis, the primary complaint is pain, usually in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. Patients describe sudden, sharp, and intense pain that radiates to the back or shoulder. Patients may report pain after heavy meals, and some report nausea and vomiting. Cholecystitis is in the differential diagnosis of this patient because of the anatomic location of her pain.

The diagnosis is confirmed by imaging. Abdominal ultrasonography, technetium-99m hepatic iminodiacetic acid scanning, and CT are the most commonly used studies.14

Cholecystitis can be acute or chronic. Acute cholecystitis is categorized as calculous or acalculous. Calculous cholecystitis is multifactorial, but the primary cause is blockage of the cystic duct by gallstones.15 Other factors include irritants such as lysolecithin (released during bile stasis), which can trigger gallbladder inflammation,15–17 and infection.18

When the cystic duct is blocked, bile builds up inside the gallbladder, causing irritation and inflammation of the walls of the gallbladder.14

Acalculous cholecystitis, which resembles calculous cholecystitis but without the gallstones,19 accounts for 2% to 15% of all cases of acute cholecystitis.19,20 It has been observed in hospitalized critically ill patients, but it can also present in an outpatient setting, most often in elderly men with vascular disease.21 Causes include infection, trauma, and tumor obstruction, resulting in endothelial injury, gallbladder stasis, ischemia, and eventually necrosis.14,20,22,23


Slipping rib syndrome, also known as Tietze syndrome, is believed to be caused by hypermobile costal cartilage. The affected rib slips behind the rib above on contraction of the abdominal wall. This displacement increases the probability of costal nerve impingement and tissue inflammation producing unilateral, sharp, subcostal and upper-abdominal pain.

In this patient, slipping rib syndrome is a possible diagnosis because of the location of the pain and because the pain described by the patient is highly suggestive of neuropathic pain.

Slipping rib syndrome is diagnosed clinically by a “hooking” maneuver: the clinician hooks his or her fingers at the patient’s subcostal area, reproducing the pain by movement of the ribs anteriorly.24 When this test is performed in our patient the result is negative, ruling out slipping rib syndrome.


A complete blood cell count and comprehensive metabolic panel are within normal limits. Abdominal duplex ultrasonography reveals no celiac or mesenteric occlusions, thus ruling out chronic mesenteric ischemia.

Noncontrast CT shows no renal or ureteric stones and no evidence of bleeding in the urinary tract. CT with contrast shows no bowel distention, no evidence of hernia, and a normal appendix and ovaries.

2. After exclusion of the previous choices, which of the following is the most likely cause of her symptoms?

  • Anterior cutaneous nerve entrapment syndrome (ACNES)
  • Ovarian cyst
  • Renal stones
  • Appendicitis
  • Ventral hernia
  • Median arcuate ligament syndrome

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