What is Abdominal Distention? - Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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  • 0:02 Abdominal Distention
  • 0:44 Causes
  • 2:06 Symptoms
  • 2:34 Treatment
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Abdominal distention is caused by a buildup of fluids or gas in the abdominal section of the body. Complete this lesson to find out more about the many conditions that can cause distention, what the symptoms are, and how they're treated.

Abdominal Distention

You know that feeling you sometimes get after Thanksgiving dinner? The one where you want to unbutton your pants because you ate too much turkey and mashed potatoes, and now your midsection feels like it's spilling over your pants? If you know this feeling, you have experienced abdominal distention.

Abdominal distention, also known as bloating or swelling, refers to an occurrence when the midsection increases in size and sticks out farther than usual. In the case of our Thanksgiving dinner example, it isn't life-threatening. However, there are many possible causes of abdominal distention, and some of them can be serious, so let's explore further.


The abdomen can become distended when air or fluid accumulates in the stomach or intestines, causing the abdomen to stick out more than usual. In rare cases, it can also be caused by a tumor or mass. Some of the most common causes are:

  • Overeating: (Hello, Thanksgiving) Gas can develop after eating food that's high in fiber or after swallowing too much air
  • Lactose intolerance: Occurs when the body is incapable of digesting lactose, causing bloating and gas
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): Causes bloating and gas
  • Ascites: Develops when fluid accumulates in the abdomen, often as a result of liver disease (like cirrhosis)

Other possible causes of abdominal distention include gallstones, pancreatitis, intestinal blockages, peritonitis, intra-abdominal abscess, internal bleeding, trauma, hernia, hepatitis, and heart failure. People may also experience abdominal distention due to ovarian cysts, weight gain, pregnancy, abnormal bacteria composition in the intestines, and abnormal curvature of the spine that limits the amount of gas the abdomen can tolerate.


The most obvious symptom is the abdomen sticking out farther than usual. Other symptoms may include burping or flatulence as well as pain or discomfort in the abdomen, along with feeling very full. If the abdomen pushes on the diaphragm, it can also cause shortness of breath. If these symptoms are accompanied by nausea, fever, diarrhea, bloody stools, or the prolonged inability to eat or drink, it's best to see a doctor.

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