How is the history of pain used to determine the underlying etiology of intestinal perforation?

Updated: Jul 24, 2020
  • Author: Samy A Azer, MD, PhD, MPH; Chief Editor: John Geibel, MD, MSc, DSc, AGAF  more...
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With regard to abdominal pain, it is important to ask patients about the time of onset of pain, the duration and location of pain, the characteristics of pain, relieving and aggravating factors, and other symptoms associated with abdominal pain. A history of similar attacks may also suggest the etiology.

Sharp, severe, sudden-onset epigastric pain that awakens the patient from sleep often suggests perforated peptic ulcer. Differentiate this from conditions such as cholecystitis and pancreatitis. Painless perforation of a peptic ulcer can occur with steroid use. The presence of shoulder pain suggests involvement of the parietal peritoneum of the diaphragm.

In elderly patients, consider the possibility of perforated diverticulitis or ruptured acute appendicitis if the pain is located in the lower abdomen. Approximately 30-40% of elderly patients with acute appendicitis present more than 48 hours after the onset of abdominal pain. (Delayed presentation is usually associated with increased risk of perforation.) Elderly patients may have minimal pain.

In young adults with pain in the lower abdominal quadrant, consider perforated appendicitis as a possible diagnosis. Acute appendicitis with sudden perforation is usually associated with illness of several hours. The pain is typically localized in the right lower quadrant of the abdomen, unless the disease process has progressed to generalized peritonitis. In young women, also consider ruptured ovarian cyst and ruptured tubo-ovarian abscess in the differential diagnosis.

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