Abdominal pain in the ED: a 35 year retrospective

Am J Emerg Med. 2011 Sep;29(7):711-6. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2010.01.045. Epub 2010 May 1.


Objective: Research published in 1972 and 1993 has detailed the demographics, diagnoses, and diagnostic test utilization of adult patients presenting with nontraumatic abdominal pain to the emergency department (ED) at the University of Virginia Hospital. This is an update of those studies, designed to examine the present state of diagnosis and management of abdominal pain, as well as to look at trends during the 35-year span of the investigations.

Methods: One thousand consecutive adult patients presenting in the year 2007 with abdominal pain as their chief complaint were included in the analysis. Demographic data, discharge diagnosis, disposition, ED length of stay, charges, and diagnostic test utilization information were gathered and analyzed using electronic databases.

Results: These patients represented 6.5% of the total ED census. Sixty-five percent were female, 24.7% hospitalized, and 21% diagnosed with undifferentiated abdominal pain. Relative to 1993, there were more patients receiving specific diagnoses, (79% versus 75%) and a higher rate of hospitalization (24.7% versus 18.3%). Use of diagnostic testing has markedly increased in frequency, most notably computed tomography and ultrasound, which have risen 6-fold. One of these imaging modalities is now used in 42% of patient encounters. Visit times were longer and patient charges higher. There were 2 cases of missed surgical disease in 2007 compared with 1 in 1993 and 8 in 1972.

Conclusion: Over the past 35 years, ED management of atraumatic abdominal pain has become time, money, and resource intense. Widespread use of sophisticated imaging has had a small impact on diagnostic specificity but has not produced lower admission rates or fewer cases of missed surgical illness.

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / diagnosis
  • Abdominal Pain / epidemiology*
  • Abdominal Pain / etiology
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques / statistics & numerical data
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Virginia / epidemiology
  • Young Adult