Lead Poisoning; A Neglected Potential Diagnosis in Abdominal Pain

BMC Gastroenterol. 2020 May 6;20(1):134. doi: 10.1186/s12876-020-01284-1.


Background: Abdominal pain may be a presenting symptom of lead poisoning and is often difficult to diagnose. This study aimed to determine the prevalence of abdominal pain in patients seen in the Laghman Hakim Hospital ED and GI clinic who were lead-intoxicated, with or without opiate use disorder.

Methods: Between July 2017 and January 2018, patients seen in the ED and GI clinic of Loghman Hakim Hospital with unexplained abdominal pain or abdominal pain resistant to treatment were enrolled. Informed consent was obtained from potential enrollees. For standardization, a pre-designed data collection tool was developed for uniform data acquisition. Opiate use was determined historically. For this study, lead poisoning was defined as a blood lead level (BLL) greater than or equal to 30 μg/dL (1.45 μmol/L) with concomitant GI symptoms.

Results: Of 125 patients admitted, 28 (22.4%) had BLLs higher than 30 μg/dL. None of the patients had signs and symptoms of opioid withdrawal syndrome during evaluation. Elevated BLLs were significantly correlated with oral opium use/abuse, history of addiction for over the preceding 12 years. The daily opium use was more than 2.75 g. There was a statistical correlation between lead toxicity and abdominal pain consistency and intensity, constipation, and paresthesias. Anemia, leukocytosis, and abnormal liver enzyme tests were laboratory findings associated with lead toxicity. Four patients died, one of whom was diagnosed with lead toxicity.

Conclusion: Lead toxicity should be considered in the potential differential diagnosis of severe and resistant abdominal pain in patients referring to general EDs or GI clinics if a positive history of opium abuse exists.

Keywords: Abdominal pain; Addiction; Gastrointestinal symptoms; Lead; Opium; Poisoning.