BACKGROUND: Diagnosis of acute abdominal pain in older persons is a challenge, with the age-related increase in concurrent diseases. In most western countries the number of elderly people is constantly rising, which means that an increasing proportion of patients admitted for abdominal pain at the emergency department are elderly.
OBJECTIVE: To characterize differences in clinical presentation and diagnostic accuracy between younger and more elderly patients with acute abdominal pain.
METHODS: Patients admitted to Mora Hospital with abdominal pain of up to seven days' duration were registered according to a detailed schedule. From 1st February 1997 to 1st June 2000, 557 patients aged 65-79 years and 274 patients aged > or = 80 years were registered. Patients aged 20-64 years (n = 1,458) served as a control group.
RESULTS: A specific diagnosis, i.e. other than 'nonspecific abdominal pain', was established in 76 and 78% of the patients aged 65-79 and > or = 80 years respectively, and in 64% of those aged 20-64 (p < 0.001). Pain duration before admission increased with age (p < 0.003), as did frequency and duration of hospitalization (p < 0.0001). Hospital stay increased from 170 days per 100 emergency admissions in the control group to 320 and 458 days in the younger and older study groups, respectively. At the emergency department, older patients were more often misdiagnosed than control patients (52 vs. 45%; p = 0.002). At discharge the diagnosis was more accurate in the control group (86 vs. 77%; p < 0.0001). Hospital mortality was higher among older patients (23/831 vs. 2/1,458; p < 0.001). The admission-to-surgery interval was increased (1.8 vs. 0.9 days, p < 0.0001) in patients > or = 65 years. Rebound tenderness (p < 0.0001), local rigidity (p = 0.003) and rectal tenderness (p = 0.004) were less common in the older than in the control patients with peritonitis. In patients > or = 65 years, C-reactive protein did not differ between patients operated on and those not, contrary to the finding in patients < 65 years (p < 0.0001).
CONCLUSION: Both the preliminary diagnosis at the emergency department and the discharge diagnosis were less reliable in elderly than in younger patients. Elderly patients more often had specific organic disease and arrived at the emergency department after a longer history of abdominal pain compared to younger patients.
2006. Vol. 52, no 6, 339-44 p.