An abdominal mass is any abnormal growth that occurs within the abdomen. These masses have several causes, ranging from cysts to cancer.

A doctor can diagnose what is causing an abdominal mass with an MRI scan, CT scan, or X-ray.

In this article, we talk about the causes, accompanying symptoms, and diagnosis of an abdominal mass. We also explain when to see a doctor.

A doctor checks a patient for an abdominal mass.Share on Pinterest
Although an abdominal mass may be benign, it is best to have a doctor examine it to rule out cancer.

There are several potential causes of an abdominal mass, each of which has different accompanying symptoms. Possible causes include:

Cancer

Several types of cancer may cause an abdominal mass to form. The cancers most likely to cause an abdominal mass include:

Cancers in the abdomen share some similar symptoms, including:

  • unintentional weight loss
  • diminished appetite
  • pain in the abdomen
  • a mass growing in the abdomen
  • discomfort

Cysts

Cysts are liquid-filled sacs that can occur in many parts of the body. Cysts in the abdominal area can grow large enough to become noticeable, and they may be painful.

Ovarian cysts that grow on or inside the ovaries can cause noticeable swelling in the lower area of the abdomen. Many cysts form as part of a normal menstrual cycle, but some cysts, such as endometriomas, occur when tissue similar to the inside lining of the uterus begins to grow outside it. This abnormal growth happens in people with endometriosis.

Other serious illnesses

Several serious conditions could cause an abdominal mass, including:

  • Enlarged liver: A person may experience pain in the upper right quadrant of their abdomen and jaundice. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause the liver to swell, as can cancer.
  • Pancreatic abscess: Individuals may feel pain in the upper abdomen on either the left or right side and have a fever for several days.
  • Crohn’s disease: People with Crohn’s disease experience irritation in the digestive tract lining. Symptoms include abdominal pain after eating and diarrhea.
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm: The large blood vessel that supplies blood to the pelvis, legs, and abdomen bulges out due to a weakened area of the vessel wall. A person may feel sharp and severe pain in their back or behind their bellybutton.
  • Hydronephrosis: When a person’s kidney swells from a blockage, they may feel pain on the sides of their body, have a fever, and feel nauseated.
  • Enlarged spleen: Also known as splenomegaly, people may feel pain in the left upper abdomen and experience bloating.

A diagnosis typically starts with a physical examination and a review of the person’s medical history. The physical examination will help the doctor determine the location of the abdominal mass and what organs and tissue the mass may be impacting. The doctor will often put pressure on the abdomen to help determine where a person is feeling tenderness.

They may try pressing each of the following areas of the abdomen in turn:

  • upper right quadrant
  • upper left quadrant
  • lower right quadrant
  • lower left quadrant

Applying pressure to other areas of the abdomen may help the doctor diagnose what is causing the abdominal mass. These areas include the epigastric region, which is the center of the abdomen just below the rib cage, and the periumbilical region, which is the area around the bellybutton.

The physical examination should give the doctor an idea of the size and firmness of the mass, as well as its texture. These factors will help the doctor assess what is causing the abdominal mass.

Following the physical examination, a doctor will likely order imaging tests. The images can show the doctor exactly how big the mass is and its exact location. These tests include:

  • CT scan
  • ultrasound
  • X-ray

If the doctor thinks that Crohn’s disease or another bowel disorder is causing abdominal pain and swelling, they may perform a colonoscopy.

For ovarian cysts, a doctor may order tests to assess hormone levels. They may also use an ultrasound to investigate the size, shape, and location of the cyst on the ovary.

A doctor may use an angiogram to diagnose an abdominal aortic aneurysm. An angiogram is an X-ray of the blood vessels. They can use this to see whether there is a blockage in the blood vessel or whether it is narrowing.

If a person notices an abnormal growth in their abdomen, they should see their doctor as soon as possible, especially if they also have the following symptoms:

Although not all abdominal masses will require treatment, a doctor can help a person determine the underlying cause and what treatment options to pursue.

The sooner a doctor can diagnose the cause of the mass, the earlier a person can start treatment. Common treatment options include medication, surgery, or other specialized care.

Depending on the cause, the doctor may suggest various treatment options, including:

People often undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy to shrink a cancerous abdominal mass. Once the mass is smaller, a surgeon can remove it.

For a cyst, a doctor may suggest surgery as a treatment option. However, they may use hormone medications, such as the birth control pill, to treat some ovarian cysts.

Learn about home remedies for ovarian cysts here.

In some cases, a doctor may be able to remove the mass right away. If a person receives a cancer diagnosis, their doctor will discuss a suitable treatment plan, which may involve chemotherapy and surgery to shrink the mass before removing it.