An abdominal examination is a portion of the physical examination which a physician or nurse uses in order to interrogate the abdomen of a patient for signs of disease. The physical examination typically occurs after a thorough medical history is taken, that is after the physician asks the patient the course of their symptoms. The abdominal examination is conventionally split into four stages different stages: first, inspection of the patient and the visible characteristics of their abdomen. Auscultation of the abdomen with a stethoscope. percussion of the patient's abdomen and abdominal organs. Finally, palpation of the patient's abdomen. Depending on the need to test for specific diseases such as ascites, special tests may be performed as a part of the physical examination.[1] An abdominal examination may be performed because the physician suspects a disease of the organs inside the abdominal cavity (including the liver, spleen, large or small intestines), or simply as a part of a complete physical examination for other conditions. In a complete physical examination, the abdominal exam classically follows the respiratory examination and cardiovascular examination.[2]

Abdominal examination
Medical diagnostics
Abdominal examination illustration.jpg
Abdominal examination The abdominal exam, in medicine, is performed as part of a physical examination, or when a patient presents with abdominal pain or a history that suggests an abdominal pathology
Purposeas part of a comprehensive physical exam

The information gathered from the physical examination of the abdomen, along with the information from the history, are used by the physician to generate a differential diagnosis and ultimately a treatment plan for the patient.



According to Mosby's, "The abdominal exam is performed as part of the comprehensive physical examination or when a patient presents with signs of symptoms of an abdominal disease process." In other words, a doctor will often perform an abdominal exam as part of a routine examination. However, additional tests might be performed if an abdominal disease is suspected.

Positioning and environmentEdit

A suggested position is for the patient to be supine (on their back), with their arms to their sides. The patient should be placed in an environment with good lighting, and should be draped with towels or sheets to preserve privacy and warmth.[1] The patient's hips and knees should be flexed (in a bent position) so that their abdominal muscles remain relaxed during the examination.[3]

Although physicians have had concern that giving patients pain medications during acute abdominal pain may hinder diagnosis and treatment, separate systematic reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration[4] and the Rational Clinical Examination[5] refute this.


The abdominal exam typically begins a visual examination of the abdomen. Some common things an examiner might look for are:

In addition, a doctor might look/check for specific signs of disease, such as:


Auscultation refers to the use of a stethoscope by the examiner to listen to sounds from the abdomen.

Unlike other physical exams, auscultation is performed prior to percussion or palpation, as both of these could alter the regularity of bowel sounds.[2]

Some controversy exists as to the length of time required to confirm or exclude bowel sounds, with suggested durations up to seven minutes. Bowel obstruction may present with grumbling bowel sounds or high-pitched noises. Healthy persons can have no bowel sounds for several minutes [6] and intestinal contractions can be silent.[7] Hyperactive bowel sounds may be caused by partial or complete bowel obstruction as the intestines initially try to clear the obstruction.[8] Absence of sounds may be caused by peritonitis, paralytic ileus, late-stage bowel obstruction, intestinal ischemia or other causes.[9] Some authors suggest that listening at a single location is enough as sounds can be transmitted throughout the abdomen.[10]

A prospective study published in 2014 where 41 physicians listened to the bowel sounds of 177 volunteers (19 of which had bowel obstructions and 15 with an ileus) found that "Auscultation of bowel sounds is not a useful clinical practice when differentiating patients with normal versus pathologic bowel sounds. The listener frequently arrives at an incorrect diagnosis. Agreement between raters was also low (54%).".[11] This article suggests focusing on other indicators (flatus, pain, nausea) instead. There is no research evidence that reliably corroborates the assumed association between bowel sounds and gastro-intestinal motility status.[12]

The examiner also typically listens to the two renal arteries for bruits by listening in each upper quadrant, adjacent to and above the umbilicus. Bruits heard in the epigastrium that are confined to systole are considered normal.[2]


A Bangladeshi doctor palpating the abdomen of a female patient.

The examiner should first talk to the patient and explain what this part of the examination will involve.[3] He or she will typically palpate all nine areas of the patient's abdomen and being mindful of areas of discomfort, begins by palpating areas of no pain. This is typically performed twice, lightly and then deeply.

On light palpation, the examiner tests for any palpable mass, rigidity, or pain.

On deep palpation, the examiner is testing for and organomegaly, including enlargement of the liver and spleen and sometimes, the kidney and uterus.[8]

Reactions that may indicate pathology include:

  • guarding, describing muscle contraction as pressure is applied.
  • rigidity, indicating peritoneal inflammation.
  • rebound, pain on release
  • hernial orifices if positive cough impulses.


Percussion is performed by knocking the middle finger against the phalanx of the middle finger of the opposing hand, which rests against the surface of the abdomen in each of the nine areas tested. Percussion can elicit a painful response in the patient, and may also reveal whether there is abnormal levels of fluid in the abdomen. Organomegaly may also be noted, including gross splenomegaly (enlargement of the spleen), hepatomegaly (enlargement of the liver), and urinary retention.

The examiner, when percussing for organomegaly, percusses in a particular manner:

  • percuss the liver from the right iliac region to right hypochondrium
  • percuss for the spleen from the right iliac region to the right hypochondrium and the left iliac to the left hypochondrium.

Examination of the spleen

Other tests and special maneuversEdit

  • Examination of pelvic lymph nodes
  • Digital rectal exam only if clinically indicated.
  • Pelvic examination only if clinically indicated.

Special maneuvers may also be performed, to elicit signs of specific diseases. These include


  1. ^ a b Seidel, Henry M.; Ball, Jane W.; Dains, Joyce E.; Flynn, John A.; Solomon, Barry S.; Stewart, Rosalyn W. (2011). Mosby's Guide to Physical Examination (7th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier. pp. 492–513. ISBN 978-0-323-05570-3.
  2. ^ a b c MD, Lynn B. Bates' Guide to Physical Examination and History-Taking, 11th Edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 11/2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e Greenberger, NJ (2016). "Part IV - Approach to the Patient at the Bedside: Acute Abdominal Pain". Principles and Practice of Hospital Medicine. AccessMedicine: McGraw-Hill.
  4. ^ Manterola C, Vial M, Moraga J, Astudillo P (2011). Manterola C (ed.). "Analgesia in patients with acute abdominal pain". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1): CD005660. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005660.pub3. PMID 21249672.
  5. ^ Ranji SR, Goldman LE, Simel DL, Shojania KG (2006). "Do opiates affect the clinical evaluation of patients with acute abdominal pain?". JAMA. 296 (14): 1764–74. doi:10.1001/jama.296.14.1764. PMID 17032990.
  6. ^ McGee, S, Evidence-Based Physical Diagnosis, 3rd Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier-Saunders; 2012
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Mendiratta, Vicki; Lentz, Gretchen M. (2017). "History, Physical Examination, and Preventative Health Care - Abdominal Exam". Comprehensive Gynecology. ClinicalKey: Elsevier, Inc.
  9. ^ Jarvis, C.(2008). Physical Examination and Health Assessment. 5th edn. Saunders Elsevier, St Louis
  10. ^ Reuben, A. (2016). Examination of the abdomen. Clinical Liver Disease, 7(6), 143–150. doi:10.1002/cld.556
  11. ^ Felder, S., Margel, D., Murrell, Z., & Fleshner, P. (2014). Usefulness of Bowel Sound Auscultation: A Prospective Evaluation. Journal of Surgical Education, 71(5), 768–773. doi:10.1016/j.jsurg.2014.02.003
  12. ^ Massey RL. Return of bowel sounds indicating an end of postoperative ileus: is it time to cease this long-standing nursing tradition? Medsurg Nurs . 2012;21(3):146–150
  13. ^ a b c d Fasen, Geoffrey; Schirmer, Bruce; Hedrick, Traci L. "Appendix: Abdominal Exam". Shackelford's Surgery of the Alimentary Tract. ClinicalKey: Elsevier, Inc. pp. 1951–1958.

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