Imaging of the abdomen

Summary 

  • Abdominal pain is a common symptom experienced by many people. It is usually short term and generally not an indication of something serious.
  • Imaging can be very useful in helping your health professional to diagnose the cause of your abdominal pain, but is not always necessary.
  • Be well informed about your imaging and ask your health professional any questions you may have.

The abdomen is the area below the chest and above the pelvis. It contains many vital organs including the stomach, liver, intestines, and the female reproductive organs.1

Because of the many important organs situated in the abdomen, many health concerns can originate from this area of the body, and abdominal pain is a common symptom experienced by many people.2

Although medical imaging is not always necessary to investigate the cause of abdominal pain, your health professional may decide to use imaging to investigate your symptoms.

It's important to be well informed before any imaging or other medical test. Know your imaging options, learn more about the types of imaging, the differences between them and the advantages and disadvantages of each type. Talk to your health professional about any questions or concerns you may have.

Abdominal pain

Pain in the abdominal area is often called tummy, stomach or belly ache, and can be experienced by adults and children.3,4

In 2013–14, the Australian population made an estimated 2.8 million visits to health professionals because of abdominal pain.2

There can be many causes of abdominal pain for which imaging is not required.1,4

Most abdominal pain is short in duration and generally not an indication of something serious.1,4 See your health professional if your abdominal pain is:4

  • severe and getting worse
  • accompanied by difficulty swallowing, persistent vomiting
  • accompanied by blood in your stools, urine, or vomit. 

Also speak with your health professional if your abdominal pain is recurring or long term (chronic).

If you experience sudden, severe pain in your abdomen, seek medical help immediately. It may be a sign of a serious problem that requires urgent treatment.4

Diagnosing the cause of abdominal pain

Your health professional will ask you questions and examine your abdomen to try to find out the cause of your abdominal pain, and to help decide how best to relieve the pain.1 Commonly, no further investigation is necessary.

In some cases, your health professional may decide that a medical test is needed to help diagnose the cause of your abdominal pain.1 Such testing may include pathology tests (eg, blood and urine tests) or medical imaging.1

Abdominal imaging

Although not always necessary, your health professional may decide to use medical imaging to further investigate the cause of your abdominal pain.

The most common types of imaging used to show what is happening in the abdomen are ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) and X-ray.5 Other types of imaging, such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), are also available. 

These imaging methods differ in the technology they use, and in the types of images they provide. Each method also has different potential advantages and disadvantages.

Your health professional will recommend the most suitable type of imaging to investigate your abdominal symptoms.

It's important to be well informed before any imaging or other medical test. Know your imaging options, learn more about the types of imaging, the differences between them and the advantages and disadvantages of each type. Talk to your health professional about any questions or concerns you may have.

Benefits and risks 

Imaging can be very useful to show what is happening inside your body without using invasive procedures. However, your health professional will only refer you for a medical imaging test if it will help to: 

  • diagnose the cause of your abdominal pain, or
  • guide treatment of your condition or injury.

Although medical imaging may be considered as quick and non-invasive, unnecessary use can potentially lead to further unnecessary tests and exposure to radiation.6 

If you have any questions of concerns about your imaging, talk to your health professional.

For more information

References
  1. Better Health Channel. Abdominal pain in adults. State Government of Victoria, 2012 [Online] (accessed 13 March 2015).
  2. H. Britt, G. C. Miller, J. Henderson, et al. General practice activity in Australia 2013–14. [Online] General Practice series no. 36. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2014.
  3. Better Health Channel. Abdominal pain in children. State Government of Victoria, 2014 [Online] (accessed 13 March 2014).
  4. healthdirect Australia. Abdominal pain. 2014 [Online] (accessed 13 March 2015).
  5. H. Britt, G. C. Miller, L. Valenti, et al. Evaluation of imaging ordering by general practitioners in Australia, 2002–03 to 2011–12. [Online] General practice series no.35. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2014.
  6. E. Picano. Sustainability of medical imaging. [Online] BMJ 2004;328:578-80.