Peripheral neuropathic mimics of visceral abdominal pain: Can physical examination limit diagnostic testing?

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Background:The emergency department evaluation of patients with abdominal pain is most appropriately directed at identifying acute inflammation, infection, obstruction, or surgical disease. Doing so commonly involves “routine” (and often extensive) diagnostic imaging and laboratory testing. Benign mimics of serious visceral abdominal pain that can be diagnosed by physical exam and confirmed with local anesthetic injections have been identified over the last century. These syndromes derive from painful irritation of the intercostal nerves by a mobile rib below, or from impingement of the cutaneous branches of those same intercostal nerves as they penetrate the abdominal wall. These peripheral neuropathic mimics of visceral abdominal pain continue to go unrecognized and underdiagnosed.Methods:Our purpose is to review the affirmative diagnosis of non-visceral abdominal pain by physical examination.Results:The consequences of failure to identify these conditions are considerable. In the search for a diagnosis that is literally at the provider's fingertips, patients frequently undergo months to years of fruitless and often invasive diagnostic tests, not uncommonly including unsuccessful surgeries.Conclusions:With proper consideration of and appropriate testing for visceral etiologies, a carefully directed physical examination may yield an affirmative diagnosis in a percentage of these common emergency department patients.

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