Causes of Abdominal Distention and Definition

Abdominal Distention – swelling of the abdomen, sometimes referred to as bloating. Doctors evaluate abdominal distention as a clinical indicator for a wide range of health conditions.

The most common cause of transitory abdominal distention is excessive intestinal gas resulting from eating too fast, which results in swallowing of air along with the food. The bacteria in the colon that ferment high-fiber carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, and legumes (beans) also produce intestinal gas during digestion. Infants often swallow air when nursing or bottle feeding, which can cause noticeable abdominal distention rather rapidly.

“Burping” the infant relieves the distention. Abdominal distention due to eating habits dissipates as the meal moves through the gastrointestinal system. Completely chewing food before swallowing, especially meats and high-fiber foods, helps slow eating, prepare food for digestion, and reduce the amount of air that enters the gastrointestinal system.

Abdominal Distention and Pregnancy

Menstruating women often experience transitory abdominal distention in the few days before and during menstruation, a result of fluid retention related to hormonal changes taking place in the body. Abdominal distention is a normal feature of pregnancy. In early pregnancy the distention and corresponding discomforts may mimic gastrointestinal causes, though as the pregnancy continues the characteristic abdominal enlargement becomes apparent.

Extreme obesity may mask this presentation, however, resulting in the appearance of generalized abdominal distention rather than characteristic pregnancy. Abdominal distention often is an early sign of ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition in which the fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus. Doctors commonly test for pregnancy in women of childbearing age who seek treatment for abdominal distention.

Abdominal distention that develops gradually and persists may signal health conditions that require medical attention. The most common cause of prolonged abdominal distention is obesity, in which excessive body fat accumulates in the central abdomen. The resulting distention may cause the abdominal wall to protrude or cause generalized thickening through the midsection (the “spare tire” presentation of abdominal adiposity). Weight reduction results in the gradual recession of abdominal adiposity.

Ascites is a form of abdominal distention that results from fluid accumulating in the peritoneal cavity. Chronic liver disease, heart failure, and chronic kidney disease are among the health conditions associated with ascites. Less commonly, abdominal distention may signal tumors, uterine fibroids, ovarian cyst, and other growths affecting the abdominal organs. Abdominal distention is a symptom in numerous gastrointestinal conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (ibs)malabsorption disorders, and intestinal obstruction.

The doctor should evaluate abdominal distention that persists or in which there is accompanying pain, fever, or gastrointestinal bleeding. Palpation (feeling the abdomen), barium swallowand barium enema, x-ray endoscopic procedures such as gastroscopy and colonoscopy, ultrasound, computed tomography (ct) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (mri), and paracentesis (withdrawing fluid from the abdominal cavity through the abdominal using a needle and syringe) are among the common diagnostic methods the doctor may use to identify the cause of abdominal distention. Treatment targets the underlying conditions.


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