What causes abdominal swelling (abdominal distension)? Diagnosis and treatment

cause abdominal swellingAbdominal swelling or distention is a term used for a number of conditions that cause the abdominal cavity to look bloated or enlarged. The majority of cases involve the stomach or the digestive tract, as they are the most prominent organs in the abdominal cavity. However, medical conditions involving other abdominal structures may also lead the abdomen to look swollen. It is important to note that abdominal distention is not a medical condition on its own, but is simply a sign of an underlying condition.

There are a number of different medical conditions that present as swelling in the abdomen, some benign and others due to a serious medical condition. The following are some abdominal swelling causes:

Causes of abdominal distension

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)


This condition causes sporadic cramping of the muscles in the small and long intestine, resulting in pain and an urgent need to use the bathroom. Constipation, diarrhea, and mucus-like stools are all associated with this condition, with pain being a common fixture among all of them. IBS is considered a chronic condition that can be remedied by proper diet and care. IBS does not cause any changes in bowel disuse or increase your risk of colorectal cancer.

Lactose intolerance

A dietary inability to digest the type of sugar found in dairy products called lactose. It is caused by a deficiency in a particular enzyme called lactase, which normally digests the sugar. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include cramping, excess gas, bloating, nausea, and/or diarrhea. Lactose intolerance is not an allergy, as affected individuals may still consume small amounts of dairy without much consequence.

Ovarian cyst

Fluid-filled sacs, often the size and shape of an almond, found on the surface or in the ovary of the female reproductive system. Ovarian cysts are actually very common, with many women having them at some time during their lives. However, ovarian cysts in these cases go unnoticed, as they present little or no discomfort and are harmless. There are cases where ovarian cysts have ruptured, causing serious symptoms that would require immediate medical attention.

Uterine fibroids

Also known as leiomyomas, these are non-cancerous growths in the uterus that cause pain and pressure in the pelvis, heavy periods, frequent urination, constipation, as well as pain in the back and legs. However, in the majority of cases, fibroids are pain-free. They often appear during a woman’s childbearing years. Fibroids can range in size from being the size of seeds to being bulky masses. Some women may have so many fibroids that the uterus expands so much it reaches the rib cage.


Constipation is a condition where you have difficulty emptying your bowels. This can lead to trapped gas within the intestinal tract, causing discomfort and bloating. It isn’t until the constipation is alleviated that these symptoms will go away. Constipation is generally considered to be present if you experience less than three bowel movements per week, however, normal bowel times vary widely from person to person.


A condition that describes pain or discomfort in the stomach region. A slew of symptoms can be experienced in dyspepsia patients including nausea, bloating, and burping. Dyspepsia may have a number of causes including eating too much, eating too fast, consuming fatty or greasy foods, eating spicy food, having too much caffeine, consuming fizzy beverages, nervousness, and even smoking. The list is actually quite long. Basically, if we are not eating our food properly or having the wrong foods, it can trigger an upset stomach.


A metabolic disease that is characterized by high blood sugar or blood glucose. This substance in the blood is normally the main source of energy in the body, but those affected by diabetes are unable to utilize it, allowing excess amounts of sugar in the blood to remain there leading to several complications. Insulin is the main hormone responsible for allowing glucose into cells to be used as energy. However, depending on the type of diabetes, your cells may be resistant to insulin or your body may not be producing insulin at all.

Ulcerative colitis

An inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that results in long-lasting inflammation and ulcers (sores) in the digestive tract, primarily affecting the gastrointestinal lining of the large intestine. The condition can often be severely debilitating and sometimes lead to life-threatening complications. While the symptoms of UC can vary from patient to patient depending on the extent of inflammation present, doctors can often classify the condition according to the part of the colon that is inflamed. Symptoms of ulcerative colitis often include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weight loss. Currently, there is no cure for ulcerative colitis.

Crohn’s disease

Another form of inflammatory bowel disease causing abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition. Areas of the digestive tract affected often vary from patient to patient, with the condition having the ability to cause symptoms anywhere from the mouth to the anus. The inflammation found in Crohn’s disease spreads to the deep layers of the bowel tissue, often leading to several debilitating and sometimes life-threatening complications. There is no cure for Crohn’s disease.

Peptic ulcer disease

Due to an ulcer formation in the stomach lining, esophagus, or in the first part of the small intestine. Pain often radiates to the epigastric area. Ulcers are the result of a bacterial infection known as H. Pylori. Erosion caused by stomach acid may also lead to ulcer formation.

Other causes of abdominal swelling

Celiac disease

Celiac disease (gluten-sensitive enteropathy), sometimes called sprue or coeliac, is a condition where certain individuals develop a damaging immune reaction whenever they consume gluten. The immune reaction occurs in the small intestine and over time, it damages the intestinal lining, leading to malabsorption of essential nutrients, weight loss, fatigue, bloating, and anemia. It can be very troubling when young children are affected, as they require proper nutrition to ensure normal growth and development. Currently, there is no cure for celiac disease.


One of the most common causes of lower left side abdominal pain. Diverticulitis can develop when small pouches called diverticula. created by weak spots in the colon, become inflamed. These pouches can tear, swell, and become infected. Other symptoms of diverticulitis include fever, nausea, and vomiting. Severe cases of the condition may require surgical correction.


Also known as biliary calculi, these are stones found in the gallbladder that form due to imbalances in the level of cholesterol in the body. However, they may also form if the gallbladder does not empty efficiently. Gallstones may range in size from one millimeter to several millimeters and usually do not cause any problems until they’re big enough to block the bile ducts. Symptoms of gallstones often present as severe abdominal pain, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and fever.

Kidney stones

The developing of stones in the urinary tract can cause severe pain in the side and back, commonly referred to as the flank region. Pain generally occurs in waves, getting better before it gets worse, as the stone moves through the urinary system. Your urine may appear pink, brown, cloudy, or smelly. You may also experience fever, nausea, vomiting, and chills.

Other health conditions

Some of the medical conditions that can cause a distended stomach include:

  • Ascites
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Eosinophilic gastroenteritis
  • Giardiasis
  • Appendicitis
  • Food allergy
  • Peritonitis
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Malabsorption syndrome
  • Fasciolosis
  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Hernia
  • Scleroderma
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Wilms tumor
  • Staphylococcus aureus food poisoning
  • Hookworm disease
  • Kwashiorkor
  • Stomach cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Hepatitis A, B, C, E
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Hirschsprung’s disease
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Infective endocarditis
  • Yellow fever
  • Hepatorenal syndrome
  • Burkitt’s lymphoma
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Pregnancy
  • Polycystic liver disease
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection
  • Premenstrual syndrome
  • Strongyloidiasis
  • Tropical sprue
  • Small bowel bacterial overgrowth syndrome
  • Whipple’s disease and weight gain

What are the symptoms and how to diagnose abdominal distension

Symptoms of abdominal distention will ultimately depend on the underlying cause, however, most presentations often include:

  • Feelings of fullness and discomfort
  • Belching
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Possible fever

Abdominal distention diagnosis will typically rely on careful clinical assessment to recognize the symptom, especially if the patient is already overweight or obese. However, finding swelling in the abdomen will only be the first part of a lengthy investigation looking for its potential cause. This will involve taking a complete medical history looking for any previous condition and performing a thorough physical exam of the area.

How to treat distended abdomen?

Treatment of distended abdomen

Abdominal distension treatment will depend on the underlying condition, as some cases will require a radically different form of treatment than other causes. For example, abdominal swelling cases caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) typically only require diet and lifestyle changes to help manage the condition, which may reduce bloating and other associated symptoms. However, a condition like inflammatory bowel disease will require the use of medication to help reduce inflammatory episodes.


If your case of abdominal distention is due to excess fluid assumption within the body, your doctor may recommend the use of diuretics, which will help your body reduce swelling and relieve symptoms.

Home remedies and dietary changes to treat distended abdomen

For more benign cases of abdominal distention, like from unhealthy diets and lifestyles, changing these factors may help relieve your abdominal symptoms.

  • Incorporating more fiber into your diet
  • Avoiding gas-producing foods such as broccoli, beans, and cabbage
  • Getting more exercise to help your digestive tract work more efficiently
  • Eating smaller meals
  • Eating your meals slowly
  • Avoid consuming carbonated beverages
  • If lactose intolerant, avoid dairy products

Thankfully, most cases of a swollen abdomen are not serious and only require minor intervention for relief. However, abdominal swelling can be a sign of potentially serious liver complications. Knowing this, it is important to recognize the signs of normal and abnormal abdominal swelling and to see a doctor as soon as possible when something feels unquestionably wrong.

Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.



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