A person with an abdominal lump may notice an area of swelling or a bulge that protrudes from the abdominal area. Possible causes include hernias, lipomas, hematomas, undescended testicles, and tumors. Not all abdominal lumps require treatment, but some may need surgery.
Abdominal lumps can be hard or soft and may feel sore. However, they may also appear with no additional symptoms.
In this article, we look at the causes and symptoms of abdominal lumps, as well as diagnosis, treatment, and when to see a doctor.
Hernias are a common cause of abdominal lumps. The muscles and tissue wall inside a person's abdomen are usually strong enough to keep the internal organs and intestines in place. At times though, the muscles can weaken, and this can allow an internal part of the body to push through them, resulting in a hernia.
Hernias can occur if a person strains their muscles, which can happen as a result of:
- heavy lifting
- over-straining during a coughing fit
- over-straining due to constipation
Some types of hernia develop as a result of particular circumstances. An incisional hernia may occur because surgery has weakened the abdominal wall.
Umbilical hernias, which usually only appear in babies, occur because the abdominal wall just behind the naval becomes damaged. This type of hernia may heal by itself as the baby grows. An adult with an umbilical hernia, however, will require corrective surgery.
Other causes of an abdominal lump include:
Undescended testicles occur in infant males when one or both of the testicles fail to move down from the abdomen into the scrotum.
Undescended testicles usually require hormone therapy, but some children may need surgery.
A lipoma is a fatty lump that develops underneath the skin. Lipomas tend to grow gradually over time as the fat collects to form the lump. They can develop on any part of a person's body and may feel rubbery to the touch.
Lipomas are generally harmless and do not require treatment, though surgical removal is possible.
A hematoma occurs when broken blood vessels leak their contents, which then pool under the skin. This usually happens after an injury to the area. If this takes place in the abdomen, a bulge may appear alongside the discolored skin.
Hematomas usually resolve themselves over time.
In rare cases, an abdominal lump may be a tumor that is growing on an organ in the abdominal area.
A tumor does not necessarily indicate cancer. However, it is essential that a doctor checks it out. They will recommend treatment according to whether or not the lump is cancerous.
The symptoms that a person may experience alongside an abdominal lump depend on the underlying cause.
Often the cause will be a hernia. There are different types of hernia, each with distinct symptoms.
A person with an inguinal hernia may notice:
- pain when coughing, bending over, or lifting something
- a burning or aching sensation where the lump has developed
- a feeling of heaviness or weakness in the abdomen
- a sense of pressure in the abdomen
A person with a hiatal hernia may notice:
- pain in the chest
- problems swallowing
- acid reflux
Most hernias are not harmful. Some people can develop one without noticing as they may not experience any other symptoms.
It may only be the appearance of a lump that alerts someone to the presence of a hernia, or a doctor may discover it during a routine physical exam.
Abdominal lumps with other causes will have a range of symptoms. If these include the following, it is best to seek immediate medical care:
- severe pain around the lump
Anyone who notices a lump on their abdomen should see their doctor as soon as possible.
A doctor will ask about any additional symptoms and perform a physical exam.
If the lump is not a hernia, the doctor may perform further tests to make a diagnosis. Hematomas or lipomas that are not causing the person any discomfort may be left alone.
If the doctor thinks that the lump could be a tumor, they are likely to perform imaging tests as well as a biopsy. A biopsy involves collecting and analyzing a small tissue sample to look for cancerous cells.
Anyone who thinks they have a hernia should make an appointment with their doctor. A hernia itself may be harmless, but it will sometimes need surgery so that it does not obstruct the intestine or prevent blood from flowing freely through it.
However, if a person is not experiencing any other symptoms and is free of pain, they may prefer to leave the hernia alone. If this is the case, a doctor will continue to monitor the hernia to ensure that it does not grow or cause further problems.
If a hernia grows larger or additional symptoms present, a doctor may recommend that the person has a surgical procedure called a laparoscopy.
During a laparoscopy, the surgeon will make a small incision in the person's abdomen and insert a tube with a light and camera so that they can see the abdominal organs. They will then sew up the hole that caused the hernia.
Laparoscopic surgery is minimally invasive, which means that the body can recover more quickly than it would after open surgery. However, the likelihood of the hernia returning is greater.
Other treatment options for a hernia include:
If a person is experiencing pain or discomfort from a hernia, medication can help. Antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors can reduce acid production in the stomach to relieve symptoms.
For people with a hiatal hernia, certain lifestyle changes may help, such as:
- maintaining a healthy weight
- eating lighter meals
- avoiding bending over or lying down after eating
- avoiding foods that trigger acid reflux
- stopping smoking
- performing specific exercises to strengthen the weakened muscles — it is vital to consult a doctor before trying these
Some hernias are not preventable. However, avoiding placing too much strain on the body could reduce the chance of a hernia developing or stop an existing one getting worse.
Tips to prevent a hernia include:
- lifting objects correctly
- avoiding lifting heavy objects
- trying not to strain when going to the toilet
- getting prompt treatment when ill to avoid a persistent cough developing
Anyone with a lump that appears unexpectedly in the abdomen should see a doctor as soon as possible. A doctor can determine the cause of the lump and recommend the appropriate treatment. Not all lumps will need treatment, but some may require surgery.
A person with an abdominal lump that is causing severe pain or that coincides with fever, vomiting, or discoloration should seek immediate medical attention.