Abdominal Mass

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is an abdominal mass?

An abdominal mass is an abnormal collection of tissue within the abdominal cavity. The abdominal cavity is the internal compartment between the chest and pelvis commonly referred to as the belly. Abdominal masses may be large or small, benign or malignant (cancerous), and curable or untreatable. Examples of small benign abdominal masses include hamartomas and cysts, which are solid and fluid-filled collections, respectively, of normal cells. Examples of serious abdominal masses are cancer, abscess, and abdominal aortic aneurysm, which is a life-threatening enlargement of the aorta within the abdomen.

A physician may detect abdominal masses on physical examination. Often, one or more imaging tests, such as an ultrasound or a CAT scan (also known as CT scan or CT), may be required in order to further define the mass. A definitive diagnosis may require a surgical biopsy, in which a piece of the mass is removed for examination under a microscope by a pathologist.

Some abdominal masses, such as simple cysts, require no treatment at all. Others, such as colon cancer, may require extensive treatment with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. The prognosis of an abdominal mass depends on its diagnosis.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have an abdominal mass that is pulsing (like a heartbeat) with or without severe abdominal pain.

If you have any abdominal mass, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with an abdominal mass?

An abdominal mass may accompany other symptoms, which will vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Common symptoms that may occur along with an abdominal mass

Abdominal masses may accompany other symptoms including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Change in appetite
  • Changes in urination, including too much urination, too little urination, or pain with urinating
  • Constipation, diarrhea or irregularity of bowel movements
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Pain when lifting a load
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, an abdominal abscess may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Abdominal mass that is growing rapidly
  • Abdominal mass that is pulsating
  • New abdominal mass accompanied by severe abdominal pain

What causes an abdominal mass?

Abdominal masses can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and diseases. An accumulation of new tissue (a tumor), fluid, a bowel obstruction, bacterial infection, fungal infection, parasitic infection, expansion of an organ, or entrapment of an organ can all cause abdominal masses.

Because the causes, treatments, and complications vary so widely, it is very important to have any abdominal mass examined promptly by a physician. Your physician will be able to tell a great deal based on the location of your abdominal mass, as well as the texture, mobility, size, shape, and firmness of the mass. In many cases, imaging, such as a CAT scan or an MRI, may be required.

Common causes of an abdominal mass

Abdominal mass may be caused by a variety of conditions including:

  • Abdominal adhesions or scars, especially with past abdominal surgery
  • Abscess
  • Cancer of the colon, liver, pancreas, reproductive organs, bladder, kidneys, or other organs
  • Crohn’s disease (inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the intestine)
  • Cysts anywhere in the abdomen
  • Enlarged lymph nodes due to inflammation or cancer
  • Hernia
  • Inflammation or blockage of the gallbladder
  • Intestinal obstruction

Rare causes of an abdominal mass

A wide variety of rare causes of abdominal mass exist, including many different types of cancer and rare genetic disorders resulting in cysts or other abdominal masses.

Serious or life-threatening causes of an abdominal mass

In some cases, an abdominal mass may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. One important example is an abdominal aortic aneurysm—often characterized as a pulsating mass in rhythm with the heartbeat.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of an abdominal mass

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your abdominal mass including:

  • How long have you had the mass?
  • Is the mass painful or tender?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Has anyone in your family ever had an abdominal mass such as this?
  • Have you had abdominal surgery before?
  • Have you had any other symptoms along with the abdominal mass?
  • Have you recently been traveling outside the U.S.?
  • Have you recently lifted heavy objects?

What are the potential complications of an abdominal mass?

An abdominal mass can be a mild condition that is highly treatable or a serious and life-threatening emergency. Because the causes of abdominal mass vary so widely, complications and prognoses also vary widely.

Because an abdominal mass can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications or permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Ascites (fluid accumulating within the abdominal cavity)
  • Gastrointestinal perforation and sepsis
  • Incontinence
  • Infertility due to permanent damage to the reproductive tract
  • Permanent kidney damage
  • Permanent liver damage
  • Permanent pancreas damage
  • Ruptured aortic aneurysm
  • Secondary obstruction of the small and large intestine
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Abdominal mass. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003274.htm
  2. Abdominal adhesions. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/intestinaladhesions/