Bloated abdomen is a term that refers to more than one entity – one one hand it is commonly used to indicate visible abdominal distension that typically occurs with gas accumulation but on the other handed it also describes a sensation of being “full” and uncomfortable typically after eating. Similar terms include bloated stomach, indigestion and abdominal bloating.

Sometimes it can be associated with fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity, a condition known as ascites, but in this case it is commonly referred to as abdominal swelling.

Bloated Abdomen – Possible Causes

Ideally a person should differentiate between distension (enlargement) and a sensation (bloated). The most common causes of abdominal distension includes :

  • Fat – abdominal fat
  • Feces – constipation
  • Fluid – ascites
  • Fetus – pregnancy
  • Flatus – gas in the bowels

Bloated Abdomen Meaning and Serious Cases

The seriousness of a bloated abdomen depends on whether it occurs suddenly or slowly, causes severe discomfort or pain, associated with other non-abdominal symptoms and the events that may have preceded its onset.

  • A bloated abdomen that arisesĀ  immediately after eating food is rarely serious although at times it can be very uncomfortable or even border on painful. This occurrence is common and almost always due to intestinal gas. It seems to occur more frequently in patients with conditions like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) for no known reason.
  • A bloated abdomen that occurs gradually, over hours or days, and is painful can be due to a much more serious underlying cause involving either the abdominal organs or peritoneal space. Symptoms like fever, changes in appetite, nausea, vomiting, changes in bowel movement need to be noted and taken into consideration for the final diagnosis.
  • A bloated abdomen that occurs over weeks or months is rarely serious. This can be due to pregnancy or even weight gain.

An ultrasound further supported with an X-ray can often help to isolate possible causes. Further investigations such as a CT scan or MRI will provide better clarity and may need to be followed up with an upper GI endoscopy or colonoscopy in gastrointestinal conditions or even with a laporotomy for abdominal causes of unknown origin.

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Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on April 23, 2011