Abdominal distension

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 13, 2015
StartSymptomsAbdominal distension

Abdominal distention, or stomach bloating, can be uncomfortable, unsightly, and painful because of tightening and pressure in the waistline area. It could be temporary or a warning sign of a larger medical problem. By looking at your specific symptoms, you can determine whether or not you should seek medical assessment.


Definition & Facts

Abdominal distention or swelling is when the stomach is full of gas, fluid, or solid. Because of the accumulation of the gas, fluid or solid, the stomach pushes outward against the natural proportions of the waistline sometimes causing discomfort.

This can happen in both adults and children. The U.S National Library of Medicine estimates ten to 25% of healthy persons experience bloating. They attest that it is particularly common in persons with the irritable bowel syndrome and constipation.


Abdominal swelling can be caused by something as simple as overeating, inhaling excess air, or having excess gas in the intestine. Inhaling excess air is done while eating or drinking, especially when drinking carbonated beverages. Carbonated beverages contain gasses that are dissolved in the liquid.

Excess gas in the intestine can be caused by the foods you consume such as beans, lentils, broccoli and cabbage. Pregnancy and menstrual cycles can also cause abdominal distention. The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders states that more causes of abdominal distention include:

  • Increased perception and sensitivity to what is happening in the digestive tract
  • Increased curvature of the lumbar region of the spine, or lumbar lordosis, which decreases the capacity of the abdomen to hold gas

More serious causes of abdominal distention include the following chronic illnesses:

  • Stomach cancer – is a cancer that forms in the muscular sack of your stomach
  • Heart failure – is when the heart muscle does not pump blood efficiently
  • Ascites – an overabundance of fluid that gathers in the abdomen and causes the liver to shut down

When to see a doctor

If you are constantly experiencing abdominal bloating, have severe pain, or have pain that comes on rapidly, you need to see your doctor. There is a possibility that you could have a chronic condition or a serious medical condition. Diagnosing digestive problems can be complicated and take time, weeks or even months.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment will begin with a physical examination and questions concerning your diet, the duration of your bloating, whether or not the bloating could be the result of certain foods, changes in the menstrual cycle for females, if there are other associated symptoms, any medical history, or any family history.

It would even be a good idea to keep a log of what you are eating and take a list of medications you are on to the doctor's office. That way you won't forget to discuss anything important and the doctor can look for patterns.

There are so many culprits for abdominal distention that it may take a while to pinpoint the problem. You may need to be put on a trial diet to determine if you have a food allergy or intolerance. If the problem is not solved by being placed on a special diet checking for food intolerance, you many need further evaluation. The Virtual Medical Centre states that your doctor may refer you for the following tests:


  • Ultrasound or CT: May be done if the doctor suspects ascites, fluids, or a mass.
  • Colonoscopy: Involves inserting a long tube, that has a light and camera on the end of it, into the rectum, or the back passage. The doctor can then look at the inside of the bowels to make sure there are no tumors or colon cancer.

Treatments will also vary depending on your diagnosis. Overeating is simple to treat. Simply eat smaller more frequent meals. Food allergies and intolerances, once you know what they are, are also easy to treat. Your doctor or a registered dietician can help you devise a diet that will keep your symptoms from occurring. Diets can be easily changed and manipulated.

If you have a chronic illness, your doctor will have to prescribe medications, a diet, or a combination of the two to help alleviate the problem. The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders states low FODMAPs diet, probiotics and the non-absorbable antibiotic rifaximin offer some hope as well.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Being proactive can help to reduce bloating or banish it. Here are several tips on how to manage or avoid bloating:

  • Probiotics – take probiotics or eat foods that contain probiotics to improve your gut health.
  • Avoid carbonated drinks
  • Don’t chew gum because it aids in inhaling excess air
  • Eat 5-6 small meals throughout the day instead of three large meals
  • Avoid gassy foods like cabbage, beans, broccoli, lentils, and even synthetic


  • Stay physically active to keep your insides moving
  • Make sure you are getting enough natural fiber and fluid
  • Rule out food intolerances
  • Weight loss could be effective
  • Abdominal exercise
  • Follow the low FODMAPs diet – Low fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans, polyols diet

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