Pearl of the Month

Chronic abdominal pain: What to do when a patient presents with it


A 53-year-old woman presents for evaluation of persistent abdominal pain over the past 6 months. She reports the pain is about a 7 out of 10, located in the right upper quadrant. The pain does not worsen with food and not relieved with bowel movements. She has no nausea or vomiting. She reports that the pain worsens when she is sitting or standing and is relieved by lying down. Her past medical history includes having had a cholecystectomy in 2016, having hypertension, and having type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw

The patient’s medications include metformin, lisinopril, and empagliflozin. Her blood pressure was 130/70, and her pulse was 80. An abdominal exam of her found tenderness to palpation in the right upper quadrant, and no rebound tenderness. Her labs found a white blood cell count of 5.4, a hematocrit of 44%, an erythrocyte sedimentation rate of 13, a C-reactive protein of 1.0, a bilirubin of .8, an alkaline phosphatase of 100, an aspartate aminotransferase of 30, and an alanine transaminase of 22.

What is the most appropriate next step?

A) Right side up oblique ultrasound.

B) Abdominal CT scan.

C) Upper endoscopy.

D) More detailed physical exam.

The correct answer here is D, a more detailed physical exam is needed. Given the positional nature of this patient’s abdominal pain, an evaluation for an abdominal wall cause is appropriate.

Abdominal wall pain as a cause of chronic abdominal pain is rarely considered, but it really should be. Costanza and colleagues looked at 2,709 patients referred to gastroenterologists for chronic abdominal pain.1 Chronic abdominal wall pain was diagnosed in 137 patients, with the diagnosis unchanged in 97% of these patients after 4 years. Most of the patients were women (four to one), and the diagnosis was almost always unsuspected by the referring physician. Physical exam was helpful in suggesting the diagnosis of abdominal wall pain.

The use of Carnett sign can be helpful. A positive Carnett sign is when abdominal pain increases or remains unchanged with tensing abdomen or when the examiner palpates the tensed abdomen. Thompson and colleagues looked at the outcome of 72 patients with undiagnosed abdominal pain and a positive Carnett sign.2 Despite multiple diagnostic tests and surgeries done on these patients, very few of them had serious underlying pathology.

Thompson and Frances published another study looking at 120 patients presenting to an ED with undiagnosed abdominal pain.3 Twenty-four of the patients had positive abdominal wall tenderness on exam, and of those, only 1 had intra-abdominal pathology.

In another study, 158 patients admitted to the hospital with abdominal pain were evaluated for the presence of abdominal wall pain.4 Fifty-three patients were diagnosed with appendicitis, and 5 had abdominal wall tenderness on exam. Thirty-eight patients had other intra-abdominal pathology, and none of those had abdominal wall tenderness on exam. Of the 67 patients in the study who had nonspecific abdominal pain, 19 had abdominal wall tenderness on exam.

Most physicians do not include evaluation for abdominal wall tenderness as part of their evaluation of patients with abdominal pain. I think looking for this is helpful and, if positive, may lead to a diagnosis, as well as reduce the likelihood of intra-abdominal diagnoses.


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