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Conceptual overview

General description

The abdomen is a roughly cylindrical chamber extending from the inferior margin of the thorax to the superior margin of the pelvis and the lower limb (Fig. 4.1A).

The inferior thoracic aperture forms the superior opening to the abdomen, and is closed by the diaphragm. Inferiorly, the deep abdominal wall is continuous with the pelvic wall at the pelvic inlet. Superficially, the inferior limit of the abdominal wall is the superior margin of the lower limb.

The chamber enclosed by the abdominal wall contains a single large peritoneal cavity, which freely communicates with the pelvic cavity.

Abdominal viscera are either suspended in the peritoneal cavity by mesenteries or positioned between the cavity and the musculoskeletal wall (Fig. 4.1B).

Abdominal viscera include:


Houses and protects major viscera

The abdomen houses major elements of the gastrointestinal system (Fig. 4.2), the spleen, and parts of the urinary system.

Much of the liver, gallbladder, stomach, and spleen and parts of the colon are under the domes of the diaphragm, which project superiorly above the costal margin of the thoracic wall, and as a result these abdominal viscera are protected by the thoracic wall. The superior poles of the kidneys are deep to the lower ribs.

Viscera not under the domes of the diaphragm are supported and protected predominantly by the muscular walls of the abdomen.

Changes in intraabdominal pressure

Contraction of abdominal wall muscles can dramatically increase intraabdominal pressure when the diaphragm is in a fixed position (Fig. 4.4). Air is retained in the lungs by closing valves in the larynx in the neck. Increased intra-abdominal pressure assists in voiding the contents of the bladder and rectum and in giving birth.

Component parts


The abdominal wall consists partly of bone but mainly of muscle (Fig. 4.5). The skeletal elements of the wall (Fig. 4.5A) are:

Muscles make up the rest of the abdominal wall (Fig. 4.5B):

Structural continuity between posterior, lateral, and anterior parts of the abdominal wall is provided by thick fascia posteriorly and by flat tendinous sheets (aponeuroses) derived from muscles of the lateral wall. A fascial layer of varying thickness separates the abdominal wall from the peritoneum, which lines the abdominal cavity.

Abdominal cavity

The general organization of the abdominal cavity is one in which a central gut tube (gastrointestinal system) is suspended from the posterior abdominal wall and partly from the anterior abdominal wall by thin sheets of tissue (mesenteries; Fig. 4.6):

Different parts of these two mesenteries are named according to the organs they suspend or with which they are associated.

Major viscera, such as the kidneys, that are not suspended in the abdominal cavity by mesenteries are associated with the abdominal wall.

The abdominal cavity is lined by peritoneum, which consists of an epithelial-like single layer of cells (the mesothelium) together with a supportive layer of connective tissue. Peritoneum is similar to the pleura and serous pericardium in the thorax.

The peritoneum reflects off the abdominal wall to become a component of the mesenteries that suspend the viscera.

Normally, elements of the gastrointestinal tract and its derivatives completely fill the abdominal cavity, making the peritoneal cavity a potential space, and visceral peritoneum on organs and parietal peritoneum on the adjacent abdominal wall slide freely against one another.

Abdominal viscera are either intraperitoneal or retroperitoneal:

Retroperitoneal structures include the kidneys and ureters, which develop in the region between the peritoneum and the abdominal wall and remain in this position in the adult.

During development, some organs, such as parts of the small and large intestines, are suspended initially in the abdominal cavity by a mesentery, and later become retroperitoneal secondarily by fusing with the abdominal wall (Fig. 4.7).

Large vessels, nerves, and lymphatics are associated with the posterior abdominal wall along the median axis of the body in the region where, during development, the peritoneum reflects off the wall as the dorsal mesentery, which supports the developing gut tube. As a consequence, branches of the neurovascular structures that pass to parts of the gastrointestinal system are unpaired, originate from the anterior aspects of their parent structures, and travel in mesenteries or pass retroperitoneally in areas where the mesenteries secondarily fuse to the wall.

Generally, vessels, nerves, and lymphatics to the abdominal wall and to organs that originate as retroperitoneal structures branch laterally from the central neurovascular structures and are usually paired, one on each side.

Inferior thoracic aperture

The superior aperture of the abdomen is the inferior thoracic aperture, which is closed by the diaphragm (see pp. 126-127). The margin of the inferior thoracic aperture consists of vertebra TXII, rib XII, the distal end of rib XI, the costal margin, and the xiphoid process of the sternum.


The musculotendinous diaphragm separates the abdomen from the thorax.

The diaphragm attaches to the margin of the inferior thoracic aperture, but the attachment is complex posteriorly and extends into the lumbar area of the vertebral column (Fig. 4.8). On each side, a muscular extension (crus) firmly anchors the diaphragm to the anterolateral surface of the vertebral column as far down as vertebra LIII on the right and vertebra LII on the left.

Because the costal margin is not complete posteriorly, the diaphragm is anchored to arch-shaped (arcuate) ligaments, which span the distance between available bony points and the intervening soft tissues:

The posterior attachment of the diaphragm extends much farther inferiorly than the anterior attachment. Consequently, the diaphragm is an important component of the posterior abdominal wall, to which a number of viscera are related.

Relationship to other regions


The abdomen is separated from the thorax by the diaphragm. Structures pass between the two regions through or posterior to the diaphragm (see Fig. 4.8).

Key features

Arrangement of abdominal viscera in the adult

A basic knowledge of the development of the gastrointestinal tract is needed to understand the arrangement of viscera and mesenteries in the abdomen (Fig. 4.13).

The early gastrointestinal tract is oriented longitudinally in the body cavity and is suspended from surrounding walls by a large dorsal mesentery and a much smaller ventral mesentery.

Superiorly, the dorsal and ventral mesenteries are anchored to the diaphragm.

The primitive gut tube consists of the foregut, the midgut, and the hindgut. Massive longitudinal growth of the gut tube, rotation of selected parts of the tube, and secondary fusion of some viscera and their associated mesenteries to the body wall participate in generating the adult arrangement of abdominal organs.

Development of the foregut

In abdominal regions, the foregut gives rise to the distal end of the esophagus, the stomach, and the proximal part of the duodenum. The foregut is the only part of the gut tube suspended from the wall by both the ventral and dorsal mesenteries.

A diverticulum from the anterior aspect of the foregut grows into the ventral mesentery, giving rise to the liver and gallbladder, and, ultimately, to the ventral part of the pancreas.

The dorsal part of the pancreas develops from an outgrowth of the foregut into the dorsal mesentery. The spleen develops in the dorsal mesentery in the region between the body wall and presumptive stomach.

In the foregut, the developing stomach rotates clockwise and the associated dorsal mesentery, containing the spleen, moves to the left and greatly expands. During this process, part of the mesentery becomes associated with, and secondarily fuses with, the left side of the body wall.

At the same time, the duodenum, together with its dorsal mesentery and an appreciable part of the pancreas, swings to the right and fuses to the body wall.

Secondary fusion of the duodenum to the body wall, massive growth of the liver in the ventral mesentery, and fusion of the superior surface of the liver to the diaphragm restrict the opening to the space enclosed by the ballooned dorsal mesentery associated with the stomach. This restricted opening is the omental foramen (epiploic foramen).

The part of the abdominal cavity enclosed by the expanded dorsal mesentery, and posterior to the stomach, is the omental bursa (lesser sac). Access, through the omental foramen, to this space from the rest of the peritoneal cavity (greater sac) is inferior to the free edge of the ventral mesentery.

Part of the dorsal mesentery that initially forms part of the lesser sac greatly enlarges in an inferior direction, and the two opposing surfaces of the mesentery fuse to form an apron-like structure (the greater omentum). The greater omentum is suspended from the greater curvature of the stomach, lies over other viscera in the abdominal cavity, and is the first structure observed when the abdominal cavity is opened anteriorly.

Development of the midgut

The midgut develops into the distal part of the duodenum and the jejunum, ileum, ascending colon, and proximal two-thirds of the transverse colon. A small yolk sac projects anteriorly from the developing midgut into the umbilicus.

Rapid growth of the gastrointestinal system results in a loop of the midgut herniating out of the abdominal cavity and into the umbilical cord. As the body grows in size and the connection with the yolk sac is lost, the midgut returns to the abdominal cavity. While this process is occurring, the two limbs of the midgut loop rotate counterclockwise around their combined central axis, and the part of the loop that becomes the cecum descends into the inferior right aspect of the cavity. The superior mesenteric artery, which supplies the midgut, is at the center of the axis of rotation.

The cecum remains intraperitoneal, the ascending colon fuses with the body wall becoming secondarily retroperitoneal, and the transverse colon remains suspended by its dorsal mesentery (transverse mesocolon). The greater omentum hangs over the transverse colon and the mesocolon and usually fuses with these structures.

Skin and muscles of the anterior and lateral abdominal wall and thoracic intercostal nerves

The anterior rami of thoracic spinal nerves T7 to T12 follow the inferior slope of the lateral parts of the ribs and cross the costal margin to enter the abdominal wall (Fig. 4.14). Intercostal nerves T7 to T11 supply skin and muscle of the abdominal wall, as does the subcostal nerve T12. In addition, T5 and T6 supply upper parts of the external oblique muscle of the abdominal wall; T6 also supplies cutaneous innervation to skin over the xiphoid.

Skin and muscle in the inguinal and suprapubic regions of the abdominal wall are innervated by L1 and not by thoracic nerves.

Dermatomes of the anterior abdominal wall are indicated in Figure 4.14. In the midline, skin over the infrasternal angle is T6 and that around the umbilicus is T10. L1 innervates skin in the inguinal and suprapubic regions.

Muscles of the abdominal wall are innervated segmentally in patterns that generally reflect the patterns of the overlying dermatomes.

The groin is a weak area in the anterior abdominal wall

During development, the gonads in both sexes descend from their sites of origin on the posterior abdominal wall into the pelvic cavity in women and the developing scrotum in men (Fig. 4.15).

Before descent, a cord of tissue (the gubernaculum) passes through the anterior abdominal wall and connects the inferior pole of each gonad with primordia of the scrotum in men and the labia majora in women (labioscrotal swellings).

A tubular extension (the processus vaginalis) of the peritoneal cavity and the accompanying muscular layers of the anterior abdominal wall project along the gubernaculum on each side into the labioscrotal swellings.

In men, the testis, together with its neurovascular structures and its efferent duct (the ductus deferens) descends into the scrotum along a path, initially defined by the gubernaculum, between the processus vaginalis and the accompanying coverings derived from the abdominal wall. All that remains of the gubernaculum is a connective tissue remnant that attaches the caudal pole of the testis to the scrotum.

The inguinal canal is the passage through the anterior abdominal wall created by the processus vaginalis. The spermatic cord is the tubular extension of the layers of the abdominal wall into the scrotum that contains all structures passing between the testis and the abdomen.

The distal sac-like terminal end of the spermatic cord on each side contains the testis, associated structures, and the now isolated part of the peritoneal cavity (the cavity of the tunica vaginalis).

In women, the gonads descend to a position just inside the pelvic cavity and never pass through the anterior abdominal wall. As a result, the only major structure passing through the inguinal canal is a derivative of the gubernaculum (the round ligament of the uterus).

In both men and women, the groin (inguinal region) is a weak area in the abdominal wall (Fig. 4.15) and is the site of inguinal hernias.

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