IM Board Review

Not all abdominal pain is gastrointestinal

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ACNES is the most likely diagnosis. A study published in 2013 indicated that many cases of functional abdominal pain may actually be undiagnosed cases of chronic abdominal wall pain such as ACNES.25 The condition, first described in 1972,26 is thought to be caused by thoracic cutaneous intercostal nerve entrapment between the abdominal muscles, causing pain at the point of entrapment.

The patient may present with pain that is either acute or chronic. Acute pain is localized more on the right side close to an old scar, or at the outer edge of the rectus abdominis muscle. The pain may vary from dull to burning to sharp; it can radiate horizontally in the upper half of the abdomen or obliquely in the lower half of the abdomen with movements such as twisting and sitting up.27

Despite the acute pain, patients are able to carry on daily functions. The pain may be alleviated by lying down.

The pain may be misdiagnosed as gynecologic or renal. In younger men, the pain may raise concern about hernia, and in older patients, cancer.27 Patients may complain of chronic intermittent pain, usually unilateral, and to a lesser extent bilateral.27

The anatomic location of the pain usually reflects the intercostal nerve involved. The pain is not related to eating or to bowel movements.25 Some patients report exacerbation upon coughing or standing, during menses, and with use of oral contraceptives.28,29 When inquiring about surgical history, it is common to find that the patient has had multiple abdominal surgical procedures.

On examination, the patient has nondistressing pain, with a hand often placed over the painful area.27 On firm palpation, a tender spot of less than 2 cm can be detected.

The diagnosis can be confirmed with a positive Carnett test. The patient lies supine on the examination table with the arms crossed over the chest, then elevates the head or the feet to tense the abdominal muscles.26,27 If doing so reproduces the pain (ie, a positive test), this increases the suspicion of ACNES; if the pain decreases or is not reproducible, an intra-abdominal cause is more likely.

A positive Carnett test helps rule out visceral involvement

If the pain is difficult to localize, the “pinch test” can be done by using the thumb and index finger to pinch and lift the skin of the abdomen, including the subcutaneous layer of fat, first on one side and then on the other. This helps determine the side with greater pain.27


Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs on the surface of or within the ovary. They are often benign and require no intervention. However, 5% to 10% of US women with a suspicious ovarian mass undergo a surgical procedure, and 13% to 21% of these are found to have a malignancy.30,31

Ovarian cysts are usually painless unless complicated by rupture or bleeding. Patients who present with pain describe it as dull and aching and in the abdomen or pelvis. In rare cases, ovarian cysts can be large enough to cause pain from torsion. Other symptoms may include delayed menses and bleeding outside of the menstrual period.32–34

Ovarian cysts are thought to be caused by hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle. They can be detected during pelvic examination or during pelvic ultrasonography. Cysts that are primarily fluid-filled are generally benign and require no intervention. On the other hand, cysts composed of solid material require intervention.

Treatment depends on several factors, including size and type of cyst, the patient’s age, and whether torsion is present. Treatment can range from observation to medical or surgical management. Laparoscopic surgery is commonly used when surgical treatment is warranted.


From 10% to 15% of US adults develop a kidney stone at some time during their life.35 There is no single cause, but one factor that promotes stone formation is a greater amount of crystal-forming substances in the urine, such as calcium, oxalate, and uric acid.36 Most renal stones are calcium oxalate, uric acid, struvite, or cysteine.

Symptoms arise when the stone moves within the urinary tract. Patients present to the emergency room in severe distress, usually with flank pain that radiates to the lower abdomen or groin. The pain is episodic, fluctuates in intensity, and may present with dysuria, frequency, or urgency. It is also associated with nausea and vomiting.37

Renal stones are diagnosed through a series of laboratory and imaging studies. Imaging studies include plain radiography (which can miss small stones), renal sonography, and computed tomography without contrast.


In the United States, the lifetime risk of developing appendicitis is 8.6% in men and 6.7% in women.38 Appendicitis is one of the most common reasons for emergency surgery.

Appendicitis is thought to result from obstruction by fecal matter blocking the opening of the appendix or from a viral infection (eg, with an adenovirus).39,40 The resulting bacterial growth can cause the appendix to become inflamed and purulent.

Patients typically present with umbilical or epigastric pain radiating to the right lower quadrant of the abdomen. Over time, the pain becomes sharper. Certain movements can exacerbate the pain, and lying down may alleviate it. Other symptoms are nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and low-grade fever.

If the pain is difficult to localize, the ‘pinch test’ can help determine the more painful side

Findings on the abdominal examination that help to confirm the diagnosis include rigidity and tenderness, classically localized to a point two-thirds of the way from the umbilicus to the anterior superior iliac spine. Rebound tenderness is usually present. Up to 25% of cases in some series presented atypically, with variable location and findings on physical examination (eg, bowel irregularities, indigestion, flatulence, generalized malaise). In addition to the physical examination, laboratory testing and imaging (ultrasonography, CT) may aid in confirming the diagnosis of appendicitis or any other cause of the pain.38


Ventral hernia is a bulging of abdominal organs or other tissues through a defect of the musculature of the abdominal wall. Ventral hernia is categorized by its location as epigastric, abdominal, or incisional. An open abdominal procedure is the cause in nearly 10% of cases41; the herniation occurs with weakening of the surgical scar.

Ventral hernia is usually detected on physical examination, and patients may present after noting a bulge in the abdominal wall. Symptoms vary. Some patients have no symptoms, while others have mild abdominal discomfort or severe abdominal pain as well as nausea and vomiting. Imaging with CT, ultrasonography, or magnetic resonance imaging helps confirm the diagnosis. Complications of ventral hernia include incarceration and bowel strangulation.


Median arcuate ligament syndrome is a challenging diagnosis and a very rare cause of abdominal pain. It is thought to be caused by celiac artery compression by fibroligamentous bands. Pain fluctuates with respiration and is greater during expiration.

Patients may present with recurrent episodes of crampy postprandial pain that cause them to avoid eating, resulting in weight loss. The pain may be associated with nausea, vomiting, and bloating.

The diagnosis is confirmed by duplex ultrasonography, angiography, or magnetic resonance angiography. Treatment is surgical division of the fibroligamentous band and crus, and this is often done laparascopically. In patients with severe persistent celiac artery stenosis, angioplasty and stenting may be considered.2


Before the physical examination, our patient identifies the location of her pain. A Carnett test is performed, as for ACNES: the patient is placed in the supine position and is instructed to cross both arms over her chest. In an effort to promote muscle tension, she is asked to elevate her head off the examination table, as if performing a mini sit-up, and as she does this, pressure is applied to the identified tender area. The pain is easily reproduced, further confirming involvement of the abdominal wall rather than the viscera. After this, electromyography shows abnormal findings. The patient is then referred to the pain management clinic for a diagnostic nerve block.

3. Which of the following is the first-line treatment of ACNES?

  • Local injection of anesthetic
  • Surgical neurectomy


Local injection of anesthetic is the first-line treatment of ACNES.

Figure 1. After the needle is advanced just beyond the fascia and into the rectus abdominis muscle (arrow) under ultrasonographic guidance, 5 mL of 0.25% bupivacaine and 40 mg of triamcinolone are injected into the muscle, providing relief of the pain. An injection of 2% lidocaine may be done as a test block. Higher concentrations of anesthetic are to be avoided, as they may cause a motor block.

Since ACNES is underdiagnosed, the patient may be less likely to be familiar with it. He or she should receive a detailed explanation of the condition and its management; this will help achieve a successful outcome.

Local anesthetic injection is used for both diagnosis and treatment; 2% lidocaine (or an equivalent) or dehydrated (absolute) alcohol or both can eliminate the pain caused by ACNES. The injection is commonly done under ultrasonographic guidance (Figure 1).42

Complete pain relief may be achieved with a single injection, but some patients require up to five injections.

The adjuvant use of corticosteroids in ACNES to reduce inflammation is controversial.

If anesthetic injections bring only minimal pain relief or if the patient has nerve entrapment in a scar, then surgical neurectomy is an option.43 The procedure is performed under local anesthesia, as the patient’s response aids in identifying the specific nerve or nerves involved.


After a long discussion with our patient about ACNES and the treatment options, she agrees to undergo nerve block in the hope of relieving her pain. She receives a 0.5-mL injection of 2% lidocaine subcutaneously, and within minutes she reports relief of pain. She cannot believe that with a simple injection her pain was relieved. We advise her to return if her pain recurs or if new symptoms arise.


ACNES is one of the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions of patients presenting to the outpatient clinic with acute or chronic abdominal pain. This is because the focus is directed to intra-abdominal causes. But if ACNES is kept in consideration from the beginning of the patient encounter, extensive testing, time, and patient anxiety may be reduced significantly. A simple physical examination and the Carnett test aid in raising suspicion of ACNES. If ACNES is confirmed, ultrasonographically guided local anesthetic injection is both diagnostic and therapeutic.

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