The abdomen, which is commonly called the belly or the midriff, refers to the part of the body located between the chest and the pelvis. It encompasses the entire abdominal cavity comprised of the digestive tract and its accessory organs, the urinary system, and the spleen. The digestive tract includes the stomach, small and large intestines, and the appendix, while its accessory organs include the liver, pancreas, and the gallbladder. The urinary tract includes the kidneys and the ureters. These digestive organs tend to move, expand, and slide against each other, but remain held together by a network of connective tissues called the mesentery. The abdomen also contains several blood vessels, including the major arteries of the body, namely the aorta and the inferior vena cava.
The abdomen is protected in front by the fascia, a thin but very tough layer of tissue that lies just underneath the abdominal muscles and the skin. At the back, it is protected by the spine and the back muscles.
The abdomen and its parts have crucial functions:
- The abdominal organs are responsible for the digestion and absorption of food.
- The abdominal muscles assist in the respiratory process.
- The abdominal muscles protect the inner organs.
- The back muscles define and support the posture and form of the body.
Common Abdomen Problems and Conditions
Diseases and conditions that affect the abdomen are considered gastrointestinal in nature. The most common of these problems include:
Appendicitis – This refers to the inflammation of the appendix, a small organ attached to the lower part of the large intestine or the colon. An inflamed appendix usually has to be removed by surgery to keep it from bursting, which is a life-threatening condition.
Constipation – Medically, a person is constipated if he or she has fewer than three bowel movements in a week. Constipation may be caused by several factors but is usually a symptom of an underlying medical condition.
Hepatitis – Hepatitis refers to the inflammation of the liver. In most cases, it is caused by a viral infection or problems with the immune system. The risk of hepatitis also increases if the health of a person’s liver is compromised, such as by frequent and excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs.
Liver cirrhosis – Cirrhosis refers to the hardening and scarring of the liver and is commonly caused by chronic hepatitis or excessive alcohol consumption.
Abdominal hernia – One of the most common reasons behind abdominal surgery, a hernia refers to a weakened part of the fascia that causes a part of the abdominal organs, usually the intestines, to protrude.
Common Gastrointestinal Procedures and Surgeries
Gastrointestinal conditions can be treated using several procedures and surgeries, including:
Abdominal surgery – Abdominal surgery often becomes necessary when serious conditions affecting the abdominal organs arise such as appendicitis, colon and stomach cancer, or an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The procedure can be either a traditional open surgery requiring one large incision across the middle of the abdomen or a laparoscopic procedure, a minimally invasive alternative that requires only small incisions.
Endoscopy – An endoscopy is performed to examine or diagnose problems with any of the abdominal organs. It is also sometimes used to treat internal bleeding or small cancerous tumors. The procedure involves inserting an endoscope either through the mouth (upper endoscopy) or rectum (lower endoscopy) depending on which part of the abdomen needs to be assessed.
Biopsy – During a biopsy, a small piece of tissue from any of the abdominal organs is removed and examined under a microscope to diagnose malignant growths and other gastrointestinal conditions.