Abdominal rigidity

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 10, 2015
StartSymptomsAbdominal rigidity

Abdominal rigidity, which is also referred to as "rigidity of the abdomen", is a symptom that causes the muscles in the stomach to become stiff, specifically when the belly area is touched. To a belly or abdomen that already has a sore spot, even a slight touch of the hand can make the pain significantly worse. As a means of protection, the body involuntarily responds with abdominal rigidity, or "guarding" to ward off any further pain that could be caused by the pressure of being touched.


Definition & Facts

Abdominal rigidity is stiffness that occurs in the muscles of the belly area, which can be felt when touched or pressed. It is also referred to as "rigidity of the abdomen" and "guarding".

Abdominal rigidity is different than purposely flexing the muscles and the pain associated with flatulence. The symptom is totally involuntary, meaning those suffering from it have no control over it. Instead, it is your body working to protect itself from pain, and it could indicate that there is a serious (and possibly life-threatening) underlying problem that requires the attention of a medical expert.

This symptom can stem from a fear or nervousness about being touched, though it should not accompany pain in these cases.

In cases where an individual feels pain after being touched and therefore tightens their muscles in an effort to prevent more pain, it is most likely a result of a physical condition within your body. The condition could affect one or both sides of your body.

Abdominal rigidity can occur simultaneously with:


Rigidity may point to a minor problem within the muscles, but it can also indicate a more serious problem deeper within the abdomen. The cause of this symptom can vary from person to person and can be different with each age group. Most often, abdominal rigidity is accompanied by pain regardless of the cause. Every condition that causes abdominal pain can also cause guarding, a term that refers to the tensing or stiffening of the muscles. Many times, pain in the abdomen is caused by a disorder of the abdominal muscles.

The organs found inside your abdomen area include:

Problems within the pelvic organs can also sometimes cause abdominal pain. These pelvic organs include:

In rare cases, diseases of the lower lung can cause abdominal rigidity and pain, though this does not happen often.

There are many conditions that are capable of causing abdominal rigidity, many of which can be life-threatening.

Non-emergency (though still serious) causes include:

Emergency health conditions that can cause abdominal rigidity and should therefore be treated immediately:

When to see a doctor

Anyone who experiences pain as a result of having their belly touched or pressed against should seek medical care right away, as several of the causes of this symptom can be fatal when left untreated. Only a doctor can positively diagnose a condition and its cause. Individuals suffering from belly pain and stiffness should not waste time speculating about their symptoms, but should instead seek immediate professional advice.

Possible signs that abdominal rigidity is the result of a life-threatening condition include:

Treatment & Therapy

Regardless of the severity of the symptoms, most people will first be seen in an emergency room or some other emergency care setting. There will first be a physical examination, at which time the physician will ask many questions concerning the painful symptom and collecting a thorough medical history from the patient. This could include a pelvic exam, and in some cases, also a rectal examination.

In order to determine the best course of treatment, the doctor will go over several questions, run additional blood tests, and perhaps order abdominal X-rays and CT scans, as well. The course of treatment to be administered after diagnosis will depend on the age of the patient and the cause of the symptom.

Depending on the diagnosis, possible forms of aggressive treatment could include:

  • administering intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration
  • the placement of a feeding tube to keep the body from becoming malnourished
  • intravenous antibiotics
  • surgery

Prevention & Prophylaxis

In most cases, abdominal rigidity cannot be prevented. In some cases, it may be possible to prevent the symptom by avoiding alcohol abuse that leads to pancreatitis. Also, following sports safety rules and guidelines may reduce the amount of injuries sustained to the abdomen. Typically, though, rigidity is a sign of disease or a potentially life-threatening infection and should be consulted by a doctor right away.

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