What exactly is an abdominal lump?
An abdominal lump is a swelling or bulge that appears in any part of the abdomen. It is usually soft, but it can be firm depending on the underlying cause.
A hernia is the most common cause of a lump. An abdominal hernia occurs when the structures of the abdominal cavity push through a weakness in the abdominal wall muscles. Typically, surgery can easily correct this.
In rarer cases, the lump may be an undescended testicle, a harmless hematoma, or a lipoma. In even rarer circumstances, it may be a cancerous tumor.
If you also have a fever, vomiting, or pain around an abdominal lump, you may need emergency care.
Possible causes of an abdominal lump
A hernia causes the majority of lumps in the abdomen. Hernias often appear after you have strained your abdominal muscles by lifting something heavy, coughing for a long period, or being constipated.
There are several types of hernias. Three kinds of hernias can produce a noticeable lump.
An inguinal hernia occurs when there is a weakness in the abdominal wall and a part of the intestine or other soft tissue protrudes through it. You’ll most likely see or feel a lump in your lower abdomen near your groin and feel pain when coughing, bending, or lifting.
In some cases, there are no symptoms until the condition gets worse. A hernia isn’t typically harmful by itself. However, it needs to be repaired surgically because it can cause complications, such as a loss of blood flow to the intestine and/or obstruction of the intestine.
An umbilical hernia is very similar to an inguinal hernia. However, an umbilical hernia occurs around the navel. This type of hernia is most common in babies and often disappears as their abdominal wall heals on its own.
The classic sign of an umbilical hernia in a baby is outward bulging of tissue by the belly button when they cry.
Surgery is required to fix an umbilical hernia if it doesn’t heal on its own by the time a child is four years old. The possible complications are similar to those of an inguinal hernia.
An incisional hernia happens when a prior surgical incision that has weakened the abdominal wall, allows intra-abdominal content to push through. It requires corrective surgery to avoid complications.
Less common causes of an abdominal lump
If a hernia isn’t the cause of an abdominal lump, there are several other possibilities.
A hematoma is a collection of blood under the skin that results from broken blood vessels. Hematomas are typically caused by an injury. If a hematoma occurs by your abdomen, a bulge and discolored skin may appear. Hematomas typically resolve without needing treatment.
A lipoma is a lump of fat that collects under the skin. It feels like a semi-firm, rubbery bulge that moves slightly when pushed. Lipomas typically grow very slowly, can occur anywhere on the body, and are almost always benign.
They can be removed surgically, but in most cases, surgery isn’t necessary.
During male fetal development, the testicles form in the abdomen and then descend into the scrotum. In some cases, one or both of them may not fully descend. This may cause a small lump near the groin in newborn boys and can be corrected with hormone therapy and/or surgery to bring the testicle into position.
Although rare, a benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous) tumor on an organ in the abdomen or in the skin or muscles can cause a noticeable lump. Whether it requires surgery or another type of treatment depends on the type of tumor and its location.
How is it diagnosed?
If you have a hernia, your doctor will likely be able to diagnose it during the physical exam. Your doctor may want you to undergo an imaging study, such as an ultrasound or CT scan of your abdomen. Once your doctor confirms an abdominal hernia is present, you can then discuss arrangements for a surgical correction.
If your doctor doesn’t believe the lump is a hernia, they may require further testing. For a small or asymptomatic hematoma or lipoma, you probably won’t need further tests.
If a tumor is suspected, you may need imaging tests to determine its location and extent. You’ll likely also need a biopsy, which involves tissue removal, to determine if the tumor is benign or malignant.
When to seek medical help
If you feel or see a lump in your abdomen that you can’t identify, make an appointment to see your doctor. If you also have a fever, vomiting, discoloration, or severe pain around the lump, you may need emergency care.
At your doctor’s appointment, you can expect to receive a physical examination of your abdomen. Your doctor may ask you to cough or strain in some way while they’re examining your abdomen.
Other questions they may ask include:
When did you notice the lump?
Has the lump changed in size or location?
What makes it change, if at all?
Do you have any other symptoms?