Background: Many patients with abdominal pain have no obvious cause for their symptoms and receive a diagnosis of unspecified abdominal pain.
Aim: The objective of this study was to ascertain risk factors and consequences of a diagnosis of unspecified abdominal pain in primary care.
Methods: A population-based, case-control study was conducted using the UK General Practice Research Database. We identified 29,299 patients with a new diagnosis of abdominal pain, and 30,000 age- and sex-matched controls. Only diagnostic codes that did not specify the type or location of abdominal pain were included.
Results and discussion: The incidence of newly diagnosed unspecified abdominal pain was 22.3 per 1000 person-years. The incidence was higher in females than in males, and 29% of patients were below 20 years of age. Prior gastrointestinal morbidity was associated with abdominal pain, but high body mass index, smoking and alcohol intake were not. Patients newly diagnosed with abdominal pain were 16 to 27 times more likely than controls to receive a subsequent new diagnosis of gallbladder disease, diverticular disease, pancreatitis or appendicitis in the year after the diagnosis of abdominal pain. The likelihood of receiving other gastrointestinal diagnoses such as peptic ulcer disease, hiatus hernia, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or dyspepsia was increased three- to 14-fold among patients consulting for abdominal pain.
Conclusion: When managing abdominal pain in primary care, morbidities such as GERD and IBS should be considered as diagnoses once potentially life-threatening problems have been excluded.