Abdominal Pain in Elderly Persons 

Updated: Jul 17, 2018
Author: E David Bryan, MD; Chief Editor: Barry E Brenner, MD, PhD, FACEP 

Overview

Background

The evaluation of elderly patients presenting with abdominal pain poses a difficult challenge for the emergency physician. It will become an increasingly common problem because the elderly population in the United States is growing rapidly. The definition of elderly varies among authors, but for the purpose of this subject, age 60 years is a reasonable starting point.

Studies published in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that, among elderly patients presenting to the ED with abdominal pain, at least 50% were hospitalized and 30-40% eventually had surgery for the underlying condition. These studies also showed that approximately 40% of these patients were misdiagnosed, contributing to an overall mortality rate of approximately 10%. The image below illustrates an inflammatory mass of an elderly woman with a ruptured appendix.

Inflammatory mass in the right lower quadrant of a Inflammatory mass in the right lower quadrant of an 84-year-old woman with mild abdominal pain of 2 days' duration. A ruptured appendix was found at surgery.

In the period of time since the last of these studies was published, the availability and accuracy of emergency diagnostic techniques have improved dramatically. Computed tomography and ultrasonography were not widely used in most EDs before the mid 1990s. Today, it is relatively rare for a patient with significant abdominal pain to leave the ED without some type of advanced imaging. Diagnostic accuracy and presumably short-term mortality very likely have improved since the bulk of the studies on this subject were published. In fact, two newer studies showed that CT scanning significantly improved the certainty of diagnosis and altered therapy in elderly patients.[1, 2] Even though imaging has improved diagnostic accuracy, the risk for adverse outcome in this patient population remains high. The only studies published since the widespread use of advanced imaging showed that nearly 60% were hospitalized, and, in the following 2 weeks, 20% underwent surgery and 5% died.[3, 4]

Multiple factors contribute to the diagnostic difficulty and high incidence of complications seen in elderly patients. Immune function tends to decrease with advancing age. Many elderly patients have underlying conditions such as diabetes or malignancy, further suppressing immunity. Elderly patients often have underlying cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, which decreases physiologic reserve and predisposes them to conditions such as abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) and mesenteric ischemia. Elderly patients also have a high incidence of asymptomatic underlying pathology. Up to one half of elderly patients have underlying cholelithiasis, one half have diverticula, and 5-10% have AAA.

Understanding that elderly patients may present very differently than their younger counterparts also is important. Elderly patients tend to wait much longer to seek medical attention than younger patients, and they are much more likely to present with vague symptoms and have nonspecific findings on examination. Many elderly patients have a diminished sensorium, allowing pathology to advance to a dangerous point prior to symptom development. Elderly patients with acute peritonitis are much less likely to have the classic findings of rebound tenderness and local rigidity.[4] They are less likely to have fever, leukocytosis, or elevated C-reactive protein level. In addition, their pain is likely to be much less severe than expected for a particular disease.

Because of these factors, many elderly patients with serious pathology initially are misdiagnosed with benign conditions such as gastroenteritis or constipation. They also are at greater risk of being admitted to the wrong service (eg, internal medicine when a surgeon may be required).

A careful history and physical examination as well as a high index of suspicion are crucial to prevent missed diagnoses.

Mortality varies greatly depending on the underlying pathology. Approximately 30-40% of patients require surgery, and overall mortality is approximately 10%.

For patient education resources, see Digestive Disorders Center, as well as Abdominal Pain (Adults), Appendicitis, Diverticulitis (Diverticulosis), Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu), Constipation (Adults), and Blood in the Urine.

Pathophysiology

Abdominal pain may be the presenting symptom in a wide range of diseases in elderly patients. Note that elderly patients with intra-abdominal pathology are more likely to present with symptoms other than abdominal pain, such as fever, fatigue, chest pain, or altered mental status.

Biliary tract disease

Biliary tract disease includes symptomatic cholelithiasis, choledocholithiasis, calculus and acalculous cholecystitis, and ascending cholangitis.

In some studies, biliary tract disease is the most common diagnosis among elderly patients presenting with abdominal pain.

Approximately 30-50% of patients older than 65 years have gallstones.

The mortality rate of elderly patients diagnosed with cholecystitis is approximately 10%. Cholecystitis is acalculous in approximately 10% of elderly patients with the condition. Classically, the diagnosis requires the presence of right upper quadrant pain associated with fever and leukocytosis. Unfortunately, 25% of elderly patients may have no significant pain, and less than one half have fever, vomiting, or leukocytosis. The diagnosis therefore can be difficult in this age group, requiring a high index of suspicion.

Complications of biliary tract disease include gallbladder perforation, emphysematous cholecystitis, ascending cholangitis, and gallstone ileus, which is responsible for approximately 2% of cases of small bowel obstruction in elderly patients.

Appendicitis

Appendicitis is a less common cause of abdominal pain in elderly patients than in younger patients, but the incidence among elderly patients appears to be rising. Only approximately 10% of cases of acute appendicitis occur in patients older than 60 years, whereas one half of all deaths from appendicitis occur in this age group.

The rate of perforation in elderly patients is approximately 50%, 5 times higher than in younger adults. This is largely because 75% of elderly patients wait more than 24 hours to seek medical attention.

The diagnosis can be difficult to make, since more than one half of patients in this age group do not present with fever or leukocytosis. Further confusing the picture, approximately one third do not localize pain to the right lower quadrant, and one fourth do not have appreciable right lower quadrant tenderness.

Only 20% of elderly patients present with anorexia, fever, right lower quadrant pain, and leukocytosis. The initial diagnosis is incorrect in 40-50% of patients in this age range.

All of the above factors contribute to delayed diagnosis and high complication rates. A 10-year retrospective review found that the diagnosis was delayed in 35% of patients.[5] Again, a high index of suspicion is necessary to avoid missing this diagnosis.

Diverticulitis

The formation of diverticula in the colon is largely a product of diet and age and is relatively rare in those younger than 40 years. In the United States, diverticula are present in approximately 50-80% of patients older than 65 years.

Diverticulitis results when diverticula become obstructed by fecal matter, resulting in lymphatic obstruction, inflammation, and perforation. By definition, diverticulitis involves at least microperforation of the colon.

Approximately 85% of cases occur in the left colon. Right-sided diverticulitis is often more difficult to diagnose and generally is more benign.

Elderly patients with diverticulitis are often afebrile, and an elevated WBC count is observed in less than one half. Only approximately 25% of patients have guaiac positive stool.

Mesenteric ischemia

Including mesenteric ischemia (see the image below) in the differential is important, even though it accounts for less than 1% of cases of abdominal pain in elderly patients. A study from Finland suggests that acute mesenteric ischemia may be an underestimated cause of acute abdomen.[6]

CT scan of a 76-year-old woman with severe abdomin CT scan of a 76-year-old woman with severe abdominal pain of 3 hours' duration. Note the ringlike enhancement of bowel wall in the posterior abdomen. Ischemic small bowel was resected at surgery.

Mortality ranges from 70-90%, and any delay in diagnosis increases the risk of death.

Patients classically present with severe abdominal pain despite having little tenderness on examination. Vomiting and diarrhea are often present.

Risk factors for the development of mesenteric ischemia include atrial fibrillation, atherosclerotic disease, and low ejection fraction.

Occasionally patients may present with recurrent episodes of postprandial abdominal pain, sometimes termed intestinal angina.

Bowel obstruction

Bowel obstruction accounts for approximately 12% of cases of abdominal pain in elderly patients. Obstruction is classified as blockage of either the small bowel or the large bowel, although the distinction can be difficult to make clinically (see Small-Bowel Obstruction and Large-Bowel Obstruction).

Cecal volvulus is relatively rare and typically presents clinically as small bowel obstruction. Sigmoid volvulus is much more common and often can be identified by plain abdominal radiography. See the image below.

Radiograph of a 90-year-old man with abdominal pai Radiograph of a 90-year-old man with abdominal pain of 4 days' duration. Plain films reveal large bowel dilatation. Sigmoid volvulus with ischemic colon was diagnosed at surgery.

Distension of the colon of more than 9 cm can signal impending perforation.

Risk factors for sigmoid volvulus include inactivity and laxative use, both of which are common in elderly patients.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm

AAA is observed almost exclusively in elderly patients. Approximately 5% of men older than 65 years have AAA. The male-to-female ratio is 7:1.

If the diagnosis of ruptured AAA is made in the hemodynamically stable patient, the mortality is approximately 25%. In patients presenting in shock, the mortality is 80%.

Maintain a high index of suspicion, since many patients present with a clinical picture suggestive of renal colic or musculoskeletal back pain. Approximately 30% of patients with ruptured AAA are misdiagnosed initially.

Peptic ulcer disease

Peptic ulcer disease (PUD) deserves special mention, since the incidence among elderly patients is increasing. This may be due in part to the increasing availability and use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Users of NSAIDs are 5-10 times more likely to develop PUD than nonusers.

Mortality of elderly patients with PUD is approximately 100 times higher than that of younger patients with PUD.

Diagnosis of PUD in elderly patients can be difficult. Approximately 35% of elderly patients with PUD have no pain. The most common presenting symptom is melena.

Complications include hemorrhage and perforation. In elderly patients perforation is often painless, and free air may be absent on plain radiographs in more than 60% of patients.

Malignancy

Among elderly patients discharged from the ED with a diagnosis of nonspecific abdominal pain, approximately 10% eventually are diagnosed with an underlying malignancy.

Gastroenteritis

Consider gastroenteritis a diagnosis of exclusion in elderly patients with vomiting and diarrhea. Vomiting and diarrhea can be caused by many illnesses. Reviews of cases of missed appendicitis reveal that approximately one half of patients initially were diagnosed with gastroenteritis.

Even when more dangerous conditions have been excluded, realize that gastroenteritis can cause serious morbidity in elderly patients. Of all deaths due to gastroenteritis, approximately two thirds occur in patients older than 70 years.

Urinary tract infection

Elderly patients with urinary tract infection are much less likely to have symptoms of dysuria, frequency, or urgency than younger patients (see Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) and Cystitis (Bladder Infection) in Females and Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) in Males).

Other

Myocardial infarction and pneumonia also commonly present as vague abdominal complaints in elderly patients.[7, 8]

Etiology

Causes of abdominal pain in elderly patients are as follows (see Pathophysiology for more information):

  • Biliary tract disease

  • Appendicitis

  • Diverticulitis

  • Mesenteric ischemia (risk factors include atrial fibrillation, atherosclerotic disease, and low ejection fraction)

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm

  • Peptic ulcer disease

  • Malignancy

  • Gastroenteritis

Bowel obstruction

Small bowel obstruction most often is caused by adhesions from previous surgery. In elderly patients, an incarcerated hernia, as shown below, causes approximately 30% of cases, and approximately 20% are caused by gallstone ileus.

CT scan of a 64-year-old woman with vague abdomina CT scan of a 64-year-old woman with vague abdominal pain of 2 days' duration. Physical examination revealed a tender palpable mass in the left lower quadrant. CT scan reveals an incarcerated ventral hernia.

Large bowel obstruction is most often caused by malignancy or volvulus.

Epidemiology

Race-related demographics

Some causes of abdominal pain in elderly patients may vary by race due to the incidence of predisposing factors such as biliary tract disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

Age-related demographics

With advancing age, diagnostic accuracy steadily decreases, and mortality steadily increases.

A prospective study (1988-2004) that used self-report questionnaires to assess the effects of aging on the natural history of abodominal pain in 1,913 US adults on initial and follow-up surveys reported the following findings[9] :

  • Abdominal pain disappearance was associated with older age at initial survey and the period between surveys

  • Factors associated with the onset of abdominal pain included female sex, higher somatization scores, and larger changes in somatization scores

  • Onset of abdominal pain was associated with younger age at initial survey

  • There was an 18% rate of onset and 47% disappearance rate of abdominal pain over time

  • The rates of increasing abdominal pain score were 18% compared to rates of 21% for decreasing pain score

 

Presentation

History

Obtaining a careful history is especially important in elderly patients complaining of abdominal pain. Elderly patients are often less likely to volunteer key points in their symptom development and their medical history. Unfortunately, many elderly patients may be unable to give an adequate history due to predisposing conditions such as dementia or prior stroke.

Key points in the history include the following:

  • Time of onset and course of the pain

  • Sudden or gradual onset

  • Location, quality, and severity of pain

  • Radiation (eg, to back, groin, shoulder)

  • Aggravating or precipitating factors (eg, food, position, medication)

  • Palliative factors

  • Prior similar episodes

  • Ability to pass stool or flatus

Associated symptoms include the following:

  • Fever, chills, or sweating

  • Urinary symptoms (eg, dysuria, hematuria, hesitancy)

  • Anorexia, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

  • Melena or blood in the stool

  • Dyspnea or chest pain

Medical history can provide clues as to the possible etiology of the pain. The following are particularly important to elicit:

  • Diabetes

  • Cardiovascular disease (hypertension, coronary artery disease, atrial fibrillation, peripheral vascular disease)

  • Previous abdominal surgery

  • Smoking history

  • Alcohol use

  • NSAID use

Physical Examination

A thorough physical examination can help to identify the underlying cause of abdominal pain. In general, findings on abdominal examination tend to be less pronounced than in younger patients. Give special attention to the following systems:

Vital signs

Tachycardia or hypotension may be signs of ruptured AAA, septic shock, GI hemorrhage, or volume depletion.

Take a rectal temperature to detect fever or hypothermia.

Pulmonary

Pneumonia occasionally may cause abdominal pain without respiratory symptoms.

Cardiovascular

Acute myocardial infarction can present as epigastric pain with or without nausea and vomiting.

The finding of atrial fibrillation or signs of diminished cardiac output should raise the consideration of mesenteric ischemia.

Hypotension, even if transient, is an ominous sign and should elicit consideration of ruptured AAA, acute myocardial infarction, or septic shock.

Abdominal examination

High-pitched bowel sounds often are associated with bowel obstruction. Absent bowel sounds may indicate adynamic ileus or advanced bowel obstruction.

A tympanitic abdomen may be observed with bowel obstruction.

Elderly patients with peritonitis may lack classic peritoneal signs of rebound and guarding.

A palpable mass may indicate malignancy or phlegmon from ruptured appendix or diverticulitis. A pulsatile mass should raise the consideration of AAA.

Carefully look for the presence of hernia at the umbilicus, in the groin, or near the site of prior surgical incisions.

Genitourinary examination

Perform a rectal examination to identify tenderness, fecal impaction, and the presence of gross or occult blood. Failure to perform a rectal examination in patients with abdominal pain may be associated with an increased rate of misdiagnosis and should be considered a medicolegal pitfall.

Perform a pelvic examination in women regardless of whether the patient may have had a hysterectomy or is postmenopausal.

 

DDx

Diagnostic Considerations

Important considerations

In elderly patients with abdominal pain, do not rely on descriptions of the "classic presentation" for diseases in the diagnosis of acute abdomen, and do not rely on the presence of fever or leukocytosis as a sign of infection.

Ensure the patient to be admitted is admitted to the appropriate service.

Diagnosing gastroenteritis or constipation

Perform a rectal examination in patients with abdominal pain (not performing a rectal examination may be associated with increased rate of misdiagnosis)

Other conditions to be considered

Other conditions to consider in elderly patients with abdominal pain include the following:

  • Malignancy

  • Ogilvie syndrome

  • Volvulus (see Large-Bowel Obstruction)

Differential Diagnoses

 

Workup

Laboratory Studies

Laboratory studies for elderly patients with abdominal pain may include the following:

Complete blood count

Generally perform a complete blood count (CBC).

Although an elevated white blood cell (WBC) count may indicate infection or inflammation, it has poor sensitivity and specificity. Do not make treatment decisions based on a normal WBC count in elderly patients.

Serum chemistries

Comprehensive metabolic panel or basic metabolic panel with liver function tests can be useful in assessing renal function, diabetes, acidosis, biliary tract disease, and liver dysfunction.

An anion gap may be an indication of a serious intra-abdominal process; look for a gap and other signs of acidosis particularly with concern for ischemic bowel.

Again, maintain caution despite the presence of normal results of liver function tests, since elderly patients with acute cholecystitis may not demonstrate elevations.

Serum lipase or amylase

These studies are useful as screening tests for pancreatitis. Little evidence supports obtaining both, and lipase is the superior test.

Urinalysis

Urinalysis is essential to aid in excluding urinary tract infection and detecting the presence of hematuria. Hematuria can have many causes in elderly patients, including ruptured AAA.

In female patients, a catheterized specimen has higher specificity when evaluating for urinary tract infection.

Blood cultures

Blood cultures are recommended for elderly patients presenting with abdominal pain associated with either fever or hypothermia or when sepsis is suspected.

Prothrombin time (PT) and activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT)

Obtain these in patients in whom liver disease, sepsis, or GI bleeding is suspected and in those expected to require operative intervention.

Arterial blood gases

This is indicated for patients in whom bowel ischemia, diabetic ketoacidosis, or sepsis is suspected.

Arterial blood gas also is a rapid method of determining hematocrit in patients with GI bleeding or if ruptured AAA is suggested.

Serum lactate

This is helpful in sepsis or unexplained high anion gap acidosis.

Type and crossmatch

This is indicated in patients with GI bleeding, ruptured AAA, or in unstable patients.

Radiography

Imaging plays a larger role in the workup of elderly patients with abdominal pain than in younger patients. Preference of imaging modality may vary among institutions according to what is available.

Plain abdominal films

Although of limited utility in younger patients, an abdominal series may be helpful in elderly patients because of the wide differential diagnosis.

Plain film radiography can be useful in detecting bowel obstruction, adynamic ileus, nephrolithiasis, and perforation. Occasionally, gallstones may be observed, as well as late findings of mesenteric ischemia (ie, pneumatosis intestinalis). However, the overall sensitivity is very low and a negative abdominal series should not influence management. See the images below.

Radiograph of a 79-year-old woman with several hou Radiograph of a 79-year-old woman with several hours of diffuse abdominal pain. Initial examination of the plain films suggests bowel obstruction.
Radiograph of a 79-year-old woman with several hou Radiograph of a 79-year-old woman with several hours of diffuse abdominal pain. Initial examination of the plain films suggests bowel obstruction. Close-up view reveals pneumatosis intestinalis, indicating mesenteric ischemia.

Chest radiography

Chest radiography is helpful in excluding pneumonia, which is a cause of abdominal pain.

It may demonstrate free intraperitoneal air under the diaphragm in patients with ruptured viscus. The lateral chest radiography has been demonstrated to be more sensitive in detecting free air.

Abdominal Ultrasonography

Generally, abdominal ultrasonography is the initial study of choice when evaluating for biliary tract disease because of availability and speed.

Bedside ultrasonography is an excellent rapid screening test for abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Some studies report that it is reasonably sensitive in detecting hydronephrosis and nephrolithiasis, but it is highly operator dependent and not considered the optimal test for urolithiasis.

Ultrasonography findings may also aid clinicians in differentiating complicated from uncomplicated appendicitis, which in turn guides the decision making regarding whether to administer antibiotic therapy first or initiate and perform appendectomy.[10] In a retrospective, blinded study, the medical records of 119 patients with acute appendicitis were reviewed, of which 32 patients had complicated appendicitis (including gangrenous, with or without perforation). Investigators found that the only significant independent predictor of complicated appendicitis was loss of the normally echogenic submucosal layer, with 100% sensitivity and 92.0% specificity.[10]

Computed Tomography Scanning

Computed tomography (CT) scanning plays an increasingly important role in the evaluation of elderly patients with abdominal pain, especially when the diagnosis is unclear.[11] This imaging modality allows the identification of the site of gastrointestinal perforations and of ischemia and the determination of the most predictive signs in this diagnosis. Reginelli et al do not recommend delaying obtaining CT scan results until all clinicobiologic data are available.[11]

In another study that evaluated routine versus selective CT imaging in 300 adult patients with acute abdominal pain (n = 74 aged >65 y), Lehtimaki et al found a higher likelihood of obtaining a specific diagnosis with increasing age and, if determining a specific diagnosis was essential, then routine CT scanning was more cost effective in elderly patients than in younger patients.[12]  In general, routine CT scanning was more expensive than selective CT scanning. The investigators indicated that liberal use of CT scanning may be supported in the geriatric population owing to the diagnostic challenges of assessing acute abdominal pain in this group.[12]

Millet et al reported that systematic unenhanced CT scanning for acute nontraumatic abdominal symptoms in 401 seniors (age ≥75 y) improved emergency department diagnosis (from 76.8% to 85%) and management (from 88.5% to 95.8%) compared to the current practice in a prospective study.[13] In addition, systematic unenhanced abdominal CT scanning identified 30.3% of acute unsuspected abdominal disease, of which 3.4% required unexpected surgical intervention.

CT scanning is the study of choice for suspected diverticulitis, having a sensitivity of 93%, and is very sensitive in patients with possible appendicitis when the diagnosis is not clear.[14, 15]

When performing CT scanning to exclude diverticulitis, allow enough time for the oral contrast to reach the distal colon (usually 2-3 h). One study demonstrated that using CT scan with only water-soluble contrast administered by enema without intravenous (IV) or oral contrast had a sensitivity for diverticulitis of 99% and appeared to be safe. Avoid barium enema in patients with suspected diverticulitis. See the images below.

CT scan of a 62-year-old man who reported 2 weeks CT scan of a 62-year-old man who reported 2 weeks of left lower quadrant abdominal pain. CT scan reveals fat stranding and multiple diverticula around the descending colon. A phlegmon containing bowel and inflammatory tissue has eroded into the left psoas muscle.
A lower CT scan slice from a 62-year-old man who r A lower CT scan slice from a 62-year-old man who reported 2 weeks of left lower quadrant abdominal pain. Multiple diverticula are observed with an inflammatory mass overlying the left ilium.

In stable patients with suspected abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), CT scanning with IV contrast is approximately 100% sensitive.

Noncontrast helical CT scan is reported to be 95-100% sensitive in detecting nephrolithiasis and ureterolithiasis. Unfortunately, many elderly patients have vascular calcifications in the pelvis, making interpretation more difficult. The presence of ureteral dilatation or perinephric stranding can help establish the diagnosis.

CT scanning combined with CT angiography is increasingly used in the evaluation of suspected mesenteric ischemia. In a 2000 position statement by the American Gastrointestinal Society, it was stated that CT was of limited use in the diagnosis of mesenteric ischemia. Subsequent studies have strongly advocated for the use of multidetector-row CT in the evaluation of mesenteric ischemia,[16, 17] including one prospective study that found an overall sensitivity of 96%, with specificity of 94%.[18] Multidetector-row CT scanning had the additional advantage of identifying an alternate diagnosis in 58% of patients without mesenteric ischemia.

Angiography

Although this is difficult to obtain on an emergency basis in some institutions, angiography remains the study of choice for mesenteric ischemia.

Nuclear medicine imaging (hepatic 2,6 dimethyliminodiacetic acid [HIDA] scan or diisopropyl iminodiacetic acid [DISIDA] scan)

This is helpful for patients in whom cholecystitis is suspected when the diagnosis is not clear. HIDA and DISIDA scanning both provide a very high negative predictive value.

Electrocardiography

Perform an ECG in all elderly patients with upper abdominal pain and in all unstable patients.

 

Treatment

Prehospital Care

Elderly patients with severe abdominal pain, abnormal vital signs, or altered mental status should undergo the following:

  • Large-bore intravenous (IV) access placed with either normal saline or lactated Ringer solution (gauge fluid resuscitation by vital signs)

  • Cardiac monitor and pulse oximetry

  • Oxygen by nasal cannula or 100% face mask, depending on vital signs and pulse oximetry

Emergency Department Care

Care in the emergency department is dictated by the severity of presentation. Assess airway, breathing, circulation (ABCs) and vital signs immediately. Place patients on a monitor and start an intravenous (IV) or heparin lock. Administer oxygen to patients who appear to be seriously ill.

If the diagnosis of abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is suggested, perform a rapid bedside ultrasonography, if available. In a retrospective study (2005-2011) of outcomes of emergency endovascular aneurysm repair (eEVAR), conventional open repair (OPEN), and conservative treatment in elderly Dutch patients with rAAA, Raats et al reported equivalent 30-day and 5-year mortality in those who survived eEVAR and OPEN.[19]

Also note the following:

  • Administer IV boluses of normal saline or lactated Ringer solution to patients with suspected volume loss. Carefully hydrate patients with a history of renal disease or congestive heart failure to avoid volume overload.

  • A Foley catheter may be helpful as a guide for volume resuscitation in patients who are sicker. Incontinence is not an indication for a Foley catheter.

  • Keep all patients with abdominal pain as nothing by mouth (NPO) until surgical pathology is excluded.

  • Place a nasogastric tube in patients in whom bowel obstruction, ileus, or upper gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding is suspected.

  • Maintain a low threshold for ordering additional tests such as computed tomography (CT) scanning or ultrasonography.

  • If biliary disease is suggested, dicyclomine (Bentyl) or glycopyrrolate (Robinul) may be administered for pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) agents are very effective for biliary colic but should be administered with caution to elderly patients.

In patients with undifferentiated abdominal pain, administering small doses of opioids is reasonable. Several studies have demonstrated this to be safe and effective without decreasing diagnostic accuracy. Consider the following:

  • Morphine administered IV in doses of 2-4 mg is inexpensive and effective. Morphine, like all opioid analgesics, has been demonstrated to cause spasm of the sphincter of Oddi. This side effect should be taken into account when treating patients in whom biliary disease is suspected.

  • Fentanyl has distinct advantages for use in the emergency department. Its short half-life allows for frequent reevaluations between doses. It also causes almost no increase in histamine release and minimal drop in blood pressure.

  • Meperidine (Demerol) has been the traditional opioid of choice in biliary tract disease because it causes less sphincter of Oddi spasm. However, the incidence of adverse central nervous system effects, including seizures, have led many to caution against its use under any circumstance.

  • Depending on the practice environment, contacting the on-call surgeon prior to administering opioids may be reasonable.

Initiate appropriate antibiotic coverage for patients in whom sepsis, cholecystitis, appendicitis, diverticulitis, or perforated viscus is suspected. Please refer to the article on the specific diagnosis for choice of antibiotics for a specific disease process (see Differentials).

Inpatient admission

A systematic review and meta-analysis of 8 studies comprising 592 geriatric patients (age ≥70 years) indicated that early cholecystectomy is feasible for acute cholecystitis in this population.[20] In 316 patients who underwent early laparoscopic cholecystectomy, there was a 23% conversion rate to the open procedure, 24% perioperative morbidity, and 3.5% mortality.

The following applies to patients who are not admitted to the operating room:

  • Admit patients with hypotension, altered mental status, persistent tachycardia, or severe pain to the intensive care unit (ICU) for close monitoring.

  • All admitted patients should receive serial abdominal examinations.

Discharge

The decision to discharge any elderly patient with abdominal pain should be made very carefully. Discharge of the elderly patient with abdominal pain should be the exception rather than the rule.

All discharged patients should undergo a repeat examination, if possible scheduled within 24 hours. In some venues, a return visit to the ED in 12-24 hours may be the best option for a repeat examination.

A review of the patient's social setting is recommended. Elderly patients who live alone are at high risk, and admission should be considered.

Consultations

In patients in whom ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) or mesenteric ischemia is suspected, consult a surgeon immediately. The surgical consultant should observe the elderly patient with abdominal pain in the emergency department (ED) to determine whether the patient requires operative intervention.

Consult a gastroenterologist immediately for patients with significant gastrointestinal bleeding.

When the diagnosis is uncertain, obtain surgical consultation. Discharge of an elderly patient with abdominal pain should be the exception rather than the rule.

 

Medication

Medication Summary

The goals of pharmacotherapy are to reduce morbidity and prevent complications.

Antispasmodics

Class Summary

Believed to work centrally by suppressing conduction in the vestibular cerebellar pathways. They may have an inhibitory effect on the parasympathetic nervous system.

Dicyclomine (Bentyl)

Smooth muscle relaxant. Fairly effective in relieving pain from biliary tract disease. May be administered PO/IM. Cannot be administered IV.

Glycopyrrolate (Robinul)

Acts in smooth muscle, the CNS, and secretory glands where it blocks action of acetylcholine at parasympathetic sites. Similar to dicyclomine in effects. May be administered IV.

Opioid Analgesics

Class Summary

Pain control is essential to quality patient care. Analgesics ensure patient comfort, promote pulmonary toilet, and have sedating properties, which are beneficial for patients who have sustained trauma or have sustained injuries.

Morphine sulfate (Duramorph, Astramorph, MS Contin)

Generally safe in low-to-moderate doses in abdominal pain. Not recommended for biliary tract disease because of potential for sphincter of Oddi spasm.

Meperidine (Demerol)

Generally safe in low-to-moderate doses in abdominal pain. Causes less sphincter of Oddi spasm than morphine but has potential to cause CNS adverse effects.

Fentanyl citrate (Sublimaze)

Potent narcotic analgesic with much shorter half-life than morphine sulfate. Potential advantages in management of abdominal pain include short duration of action and lack of histamine release. Potential disadvantage is potential for sphincter of Oddi spasm.

 

Questions & Answers

Overview

How common is abdominal pain in elderly persons?

How is abdominal pain in the elderly evaluated?

Which factors increase the difficulty of correctly diagnosing abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the mortality rate for abdominal pain in elderly persons?

How common is abdominal pain in elderly persons caused by appendicitis?

What is the role of peptic ulcer disease in abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the pathophysiology of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of biliary tract disease in abdominal pain in the elderly?

Which factors lead to delayed diagnosis and high complication rates for appendicitis-related abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the pathophysiology of diverticulitis-caused abdominal pain in elderly persons?

Why is it important to include mesenteric ischemia in the differential diagnoses of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are the signs and symptoms of mesenteric ischemia-caused abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of bowel obstruction in abdominal pain in elderly persons?

How is an abdominal aortic aneurysm cause of abdominal pain in the elderly diagnosed?

What is the prevalence of a malignancy etiology of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of gastroenteritis in abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are the signs and symptoms of a urinary tract infection etiology for abdominal pain in the elderly?

What are the signs and symptoms of MI or pneumonia-caused abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are causes of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What frequently is bowel obstruction the cause of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are the racial predilections of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

How does age affect the incidence of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

Presentation

What are the challenges to obtaining a patient history for abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the focus of clinical history in the evaluation of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are the associated symptoms of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

Which medical history findings help determine the etiology of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the significance of vital signs in the evaluation of elderly persons with abdominal pain?

Which pulmonary findings may be significant in the evaluation of an elderly person with abdominal pain?

Which cardiovascular findings may be significant in the evaluation of an elderly person with abdominal pain?

Which abdominal findings are significant in the evaluation of an elderly person with abdominal pain?

What is the role of rectal and pelvic exams in the evaluation of elderly persons with abdominal pain?

DDX

What are important considerations in the diagnosis of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

Which conditions should be included in the differential diagnoses of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are the differential diagnoses for Abdominal Pain in Elderly Persons?

Workup

What is the role of complete blood count (CBC) in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of serum chemistries in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of serum lipase or amylase in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of urinalysis in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of blood cultures in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of prothrombin time (PT) and activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT) in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of arterial blood gases in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of serum lactate in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

When is blood type and crossmatch indicated for the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of imaging studies in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of abdominal radiography in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of chest radiography in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of abdominal ultrasonography in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of CT scanning in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are significant CT findings in the diagnosis of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of angiography in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of ECG in the workup of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

Treatment

What is included in prehospital care for abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the initial emergency department (ED) care for abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the ED care for a suspected abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) etiology of abdominal pain in the elderly treated?

What is included in emergency department (ED) care of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What is the role of medications in the ED treatment of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

When is inpatient admission indicated for the treatment of abdominal pain in elderly persons?

What are indications for patient discharge elderly persons with abdominal pain?

Which specialist consultations are beneficial to elderly patients with abdominal pain?

Medications

What are the goals of drug treatment for abdominal pain in elderly persons?

Which medications in the drug class Opioid Analgesics are used in the treatment of Abdominal Pain in Elderly Persons?

Which medications in the drug class Antispasmodics are used in the treatment of Abdominal Pain in Elderly Persons?