Diagnostic imaging for acute abdominal pain in an Emergency Department in Italy

Intern Emerg Med. 2019 Oct;14(7):1147-1153. doi: 10.1007/s11739-019-02189-y. Epub 2019 Sep 6.


Imaging plays a key role in the diagnostic work-up of patients with non-traumatic acute abdominal pain (AAP) in emergency department (ED). We aimed to evaluate the use and diagnostic performance of imaging techniques in adult patients with AAP in an ED in Italy. Patients with non-traumatic AAP admitted at the ED of S. Orsola-Malpighi University Hospital of Bologna (Italy) from the 1st to the 30th November 2016 were included. Demographic and clinical data, data on radiological procedures and discharge diagnosis were collected. Sensitivity and specificity for detecting acute diseases were assessed using the discharge diagnosis from the ED as reference standard. Of the 578 patients (female 52.8%, mean age 51.3 years) admitted to the ED for AAP, 433 (74.9%) underwent abdominal imaging. The most frequent techniques used were abdominal plain radiography and ultrasonography (US), performed in 38.4% and 37.9% of patients, respectively, followed by computed tomography (CT) in 28% of patients. Plain radiography yielded a sensitivity of 28% and specificity of 91.1%; the sensitivity increased to 79.4% in patients with small bowel obstruction. Ultrasonography's sensitivity and specificity were 61.8% and 98.4%, respectively; the sensitivity of US reached 85.2% and 90% in patients with acute cholecystitis/biliary colic and urolithiasis, respectively. The sensitivity and specificity of CT were 87.8% and 92.9%, respectively. Plain radiography is still overused in the diagnostic work-up of AAP in ED in Italy, despite its unsatisfactory sensitivity. Ultrasonography and CT has a higher sensitivity and should be used as first-level imaging in most patients.

Keywords: Emergency department; Imaging; Non-traumatic acute abdominal pain; Ultrasound.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / diagnosis*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Diagnostic Imaging / methods*
  • Diagnostic Imaging / trends
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / organization & administration
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Italy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Radiography / methods
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods
  • Ultrasonography / methods