An abdominal mass is swelling in one specific part of the belly area (abdomen).
Mass in the abdomen
An abdominal mass is usually detected on routine physical examination. Most of the time they develop slowly. You may not be able to feel the mass.
Where the pain occurs helps the doctor make a diagnosis. For example, the abdomen is usually divided into four areas:
- Right-upper quadrant
- Left-upper quadrant
- Right-lower quadrant
- Left-lower quadrant
Other terms used to specify the location of abdominal pain or masses include:
- Epigastric -- center of the abdomen just below the ribcage
- Periumbilical -- the area around the bellybutton
The location of the mass, and its firmness, texture, and other qualities can provide clues as to the cause of an abdominal mass.
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm can cause a pulsating mass around the navel.
- Bladder distention (urinary bladder over-filled with fluid) can cause a firm mass in the center of the lower abdomen above the pelvic bones, and in extreme cases can extend as far up as the navel.
- Cholecystitis can cause a very tender mass that is felt below the liver in the right-upper quadrant (occasionally).
- Colon cancer can cause a mass almost anywhere in the abdomen.
- Crohn's disease or bowel obstruction can cause multiple tender, sausage-shaped masses anywhere in the abdomen.
- Diverticulitis can cause a mass that is usually located in the left-lower quadrant.
- Gallbladder tumor can cause a moderately tender, irregularly shaped right-upper quadrant mass.
- Hydronephrosis (fluid-filled kidney) can cause a smooth, spongy-feeling mass in one or both sides or toward the back (flank area).
- Kidney cancer can sometimes cause a mass in the abdomen.
- Liver cancer can cause a firm, lumpy mass in the right upper quadrant.
- Liver enlargement (hepatomegaly) can cause a firm, irregular mass below the right rib cage (right costal margin), or on the left side in the stomach area (epigastric).
- Neuroblastoma, a malignant tumor often found in the lower abdomen, that primarily occurs in children and infants.
- Ovarian cyst can cause a smooth, rounded, rubbery mass above the pelvis in the lower abdomen.
- Pancreatic abscess can cause a mass in the upper abdomen in the epigastric area.
- Pancreatic pseudocyst can cause a lumpy mass in the upper abdomen in the epigastric area.
- Renal cell carcinoma can cause a smooth, firm, nontender mass near the kidney (usually only affects one kidney).
- Spleen enlargement (splenomegaly) -- the edge of an enlarged spleen may sometimes be felt in the left-upper quadrant.
- Stomach cancer can cause a mass in the left-upper abdomen in the stomach area (epigastric) if the cancer is large.
- Uterine leiomyoma (fibroids) can cause a round, lumpy mass above the pelvis in the lower abdomen (occasionally can be felt if the fibroids are large).
- Volvulus can cause a mass anywhere in the abdomen.
- Ureteropelvic junction obstruction can cause a mass in the lower abdomen.
All abdominal masses should be examined as soon as possible by the health care provider.
Changing your body position may help relieve pain due to an abdominal mass.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Seek immediate medical help if you have a pulsating lump in your abdomen along with severe abdominal pain. This could be a sign of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, which is an emergency condition.
Contact your doctor if you notice any type of abdominal mass.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
In nonemergency situations, your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history.
In an emergency situation, you will be stabilized first. Then, the doctor will exam your abdomen and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history, such as:
- Where is the mass located?
- When did you notice the mass?
- Does it come and go?
- Has the mass changes in size or position, or has it become more or less painful?
- What other symptoms do you have?
A pelvic or rectal examination may be needed in some cases. Tests that may be done to determine the cause of an abdominal mass include:
Proctor DD. Approach to the patient with gastrointestinal disease. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 134.
Postier RG, Squires RA. Acute abdomen. In: Townsend CM, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 45.
Linda Vorvick, MD, Family Physician, Seattle Site Coordinator, Lecturer, Pathophysiology, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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