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Man endures pain as an undeserved punishment, woman accepts it as a natural heritage.


Pain in the lower abdomen and pelvis is one of the most frequent symptoms experienced by women. The diagnostic approach requires a wide variety of consultative skills, especially when the pain is chronic. The examination of acute abdominal pain has been simplified by sensitive serum pregnancy tests, ultrasound investigation and laparoscopy. However, an accurate history and examination for all types of pain will generally pinpoint the diagnosis. The ever-present problem of PID, the leading cause of infertility in women, demands an early diagnosis and appropriate management.

Key facts and checkpoints

  • A distinction has to be made between acute, chronic and recurrent pain.

  • Ectopic pregnancy remains a potentially lethal condition and its diagnosis still requires a high index of suspicion.

  • Sudden sharp pain in the pelvis that becomes more generalised indicates rupture of an ectopic pregnancy or an ovarian cyst.

  • Recurrent sharp, self-limiting pain indicates a ruptured Graafian follicle (mittelschmerz).

  • Recurrent pain related to menstruation is typical of dysmenorrhoea or endometriosis.

  • A UK study1 of chronic lower abdominal pain in women showed the causes were adhesions (36%), no diagnosis (19%), endometriosis (14%), constipation (13%), ovarian cysts (11%) and PID (7%). An Australian study found that endometriosis accounted for 30% and adhesions 20%.2

  • The principal afferent pathways of the pelvic viscera arise from T10–12, L1 and S2–4. Thus disorders of the bladder, rectum, lower uterus, cervix and upper vagina can refer pain to the low back, buttocks and posterior thigh.3


A summary of the diagnostic strategy model is presented in TABLE 103.1.

Table 103.1Lower abdominal and pelvic pain in women: diagnostic strategy model

Probability diagnosis

The commonest causes are primary dysmenorrhoea, the pain of a ruptured Graafian follicle (mittelschmerz), endometriosis and adhesions. In many instances of pain no diagnosis is made as no pathological cause can be found.

Serious disorders not to be missed

The potentially lethal problem of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy must not be missed, hence the axiom ‘be ectopic ...

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