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:
- tenderness of the abdominal area
- yellowing of the skin (also known as jaundice)
- loss of appetite
- diarrhea or constipation
- feeling full after consuming small meals
- inability to pass gas from the rectum
The organs found inside your abdomen area include:
- small and large intestines
- kidneys & uterus
- aorta (main artery of the heart)
- vena cava (main vein)
Problems within the pelvic organs can also sometimes cause abdominal pain. These pelvic organs include:
- bladder and lower ureters (the duct by which urine passes from the kidneys to the bladder)
- in women, the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries
- in men, the prostate gland
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:
- Inflammation of the gallbladder
- Colic and crying
- Tetanus (also known as lockjaw)
- General injury to the abdomen
Emergency health conditions that can cause abdominal rigidity and should therefore be treated immediately:
- Peritontis - inflammation of the thin tissue inside the abdomen
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm
- Abdominal abscesses resulting from ruptured appendix or intestine; a burst ovary; inflammatory bowel disease; infection of the gallbladder; pelvic infection; parasite infection; and more
- Gastrointestinal perforation
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:
- vomiting of blood
- rectal bleeding
- black, tar-like stool (this is usually associated with bleeding from the stomach or small intestines)
- inability to eat or drink
- severe vomiting
- distended abdomen
- low blood pressure (going into shock)
Treatment & Therapy
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
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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