Acute abdomen refers to any sudden abdominal pain and swelling. The cause of an acute abdomen is often due to an infectious agent, an anatomical defect, or blood flow that has been cut off to part of the body, a condition called ischemia. Extreme pain in the abdomen should always be evaluated by medical professionals. The condition will often require emergency surgery to correct the cause of the abdominal pain.
After arriving at a hospital, a physician will perform tests to determine the cause of the abdominal pain. A scan of the abdominal area called a computerized tomography (CT) will likely be done immediately. The scan will show any areas of infection or if the intestines have become twisted, which may be the source of the pain. CT scans can show infectious abscesses and other abnormalities that can cause abdominal pain. An x-ray of the abdominal area may be done first to evaluate the need for the more expensive CT scan.
The attending physician will order blood drawn to perform a complete blood cell (CBC) count. A CBC will show if the white blood cell count is elevated, which would indicate an infection is present in the body. An increase of white blood cells shows the immune system has been activated, prompting cultures to be made to determine the bacteria causing the infection.
Acute abdomen caused by an infectious agent is usually a result of a bacterial infection of the appendix or colon. Appendicitis is a medical emergency that requires immediate surgery to remove the inflamed appendix before it bursts. Diverticulitis of the colon may be treated without surgery, but if the infection has caused widespread inflammation part of the bowel may perforate, leaking the contents of the bowel into the abdomen. An operation would be necessary to remove the affected bowel before peritonitis, an infection of the abdominal cavity, occurs.
Another cause of acute abdomen is a sudden lack of blood supply to the area. The blood-deprived tissue slowly dies and begins to form gangrene. Toxins released by the necrotized tissue may cause pain in the area. Any dying tissue would need to be surgically removed to prevent the spread of gangrene.
Anatomical defects that can cause acute abdomen are usually present since birth. The intestines could be constricted or twisted, which may cut off the blood supply. This condition may go unnoticed for years, until extreme abdominal pain necessitates a visit to the emergency room. Part of the intestines may need to be removed and the remainder of the colon sutured together to restore normal bowel functions.