Definitions

fibrino-

Peritonitis

[per-i-tn-ahy-tis]

Peritonitis is defined as inflammation of the peritoneum (the serous membrane which lines part of the abdominal cavity and some of the viscera it contains). It may be localised or generalised, generally has an acute course, and may depend on either infection (often due to rupture of a hollow organ as may occur in abdominal trauma) or on a non-infectious process. Peritonitis generally represents a surgical emergency.

Mechanisms and manifestations

Abdominal pain and tenderness

The main manifestations of peritonitis are acute abdominal pain, abdominal tenderness, and abdominal guarding, which are exacerbated by moving the peritoneum, e.g. coughing, flexing the hips, or eliciting the Blumberg sign (a.k.a. rebound tenderness, meaning that pressing a hand on the abdomen elicits less pain than releasing the hand abruptly, which will aggravate the pain, as the peritoneum snaps back into place). The presence of these signs in a patient is sometimes referred to as peritonism. The localization of these manifestations depends on whether peritonitis is localised (e.g. appendicitis or diverticulitis before perforation), or generalised to the whole abdomen. In either case pain typically starts as a generalised abdominal pain (with involvement of poorly localising innervation of the visceral peritoneal layer), and may become localised later (with the involvement of the somatically innervated parietal peritoneal layer). Peritonitis is an example of an acute abdomen.

Collateral manifestations

Complications

Diagnosis and investigations

A diagnosis of peritonitis is based primarily on clinical grounds, that is on the clinical manifestations described above; if they support a strong suspicion of peritonitis, surgery is performed without further delay from other investigations. Leukocytosis and acidosis may be present, but they are not specific findings. Plain abdominal X-rays may reveal dilated, oedematous intestines, although it is mainly useful to look for pneumoperitoneum (free air in the peritoneal cavity), which may also be visible on chest X-rays. If reasonable doubt still persists, an exploratory peritoneal lavage may be performed (e.g. in cases of trauma, in order to look for white blood cells, red blood cells, or bacteria).

Causes

Infected peritonitis

Non-infected peritonitis

Treatment

Depending on the severity of the patient's state, the management of peritonitis may include:

Prognosis

If properly treated, typical cases of surgically correctable peritonitis (e.g. perforated peptic ulcer, appendicitis, and diverticulitis) have a mortality rate of about <10% in otherwise healthy patients, which rises to about 40% in the elderly, and/or in those with significant underlying illness, as well as in cases that present late (after 48h). If untreated, generalised peritonitis is almost always fatal.

Pathology

The peritoneum normally appears greyish and glistening; it becomes dull 2-4 hours after the onset of peritonitis, initially with scarce serous or slightly turbid fluid. Later on, the exudate becomes creamy and evidently suppurative; in dehydrated patients, it also becomes very inspissated. The quantity of accumulated exudate varies widely. It may be spread to the whole peritoneum, or be walled off by the omentum and viscera. Inflammation features infiltration by neutrophils with fibrino-purulent exudation.

References

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