Abdominal radiography

Dr Ian Bickle and Dr Matt A. Morgan et al.

Abdominal radiography can be useful in many settings. Before the advent of computed tomography (CT) imaging, it was a primary means of investigating gastrointestinal pathology and often allowed indirect evaluation of other abdominal viscera.

Although abdominal radiography has lower sensitivity and specificity than a CT of the abdomen, it still serves a role as an adjunct or optional test. Current uses for abdominal radiography include

  • a preliminary evaluation of bowel gas in an emergent setting
    • a negative study in a low pretest probability patient may obviate the need for a CT study and therefore lower radiation dose
  • evaluation of radiopaque tubes and lines
  • evaluation for radiopaque foreign bodies
  • evaluation for postprocedural intraperitoneal/retroperitoneal free gas
  • monitoring the amount of bowel gas in postoperative ileus
  • monitoring the passage of contrast through the bowel
  • colonic transit studies
  • monitoring renal calculi
  • pregnancy is a relative contraindication to the use of ionising radiation
    • non-ionising studies (e.g. ultrasound or MRI) should be tried first
    • abdominal radiographs administer a much lower radiation dose than CT
  • AP supine view
  • PA erect view
    • often taken with the supine view, when used together it is a valuable projection in assessing air fluid levels, and free air in the abdominal cavity.

Generally, plain radiograph examination of the abdomen comprises an AP supine and PA erect view, supplemented by a number of additional views as clinically indicated.

  • lateral decubitus view
    • performed as an alternative to the PA erect view to assess for free gas in the abdominal cavity 
  • lateral view
    • often used as a problem-solving view during the identification and localisation of foreign bodies  
  • PA prone view
  • dorsal decubitus view
    • used when it is unsafe to perform both a PA erect or a lateral decubitus view, this projection requires no patient movement.
  • oblique views
    • used in barium studies and the location of foreign bodies and/or lines such as a Tenckhoff catheter 

The patient should be gowned with minimum clothing. Radiopaque materials (zippers, belts, etc.) should be removed.

If relevant, enteric tube suction should be avoided before the study. Ideally, the patient's bladder should be emptied as well.

Abdominal radiographs may be obtained in the radiology department or may be performed portably. Portable abdominal radiographs may be necessary due to patient immobility but are of much poorer quality.

  • gonadal shielding may be provided for men
  • views should generally include either the diaphragm or inferior pubic ramus

The kVp of the x-ray beam may be altered in order to bring out different aspects of the abdominal radiograph:

  • lower kVp offers greater tissue contrast and better visualisation of gas, but there is decreased penetration of the x-ray beam
  • higher kVp may be useful for evaluation of radiopaque objects (contrast, tubes, lines, etc.)
Radiographic views
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Article information

rID: 38094
Section: Radiography
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Abdominal X-ray
  • Abdominal X-rays
  • Abdominal radiograph
  • Abdominal radiographs

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Cases and figures

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    Figure 1: AP supine view
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    Figure 2: PA erect view
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    Figure 3: lateral decubitus view
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    Figure 4: oblique view
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    Massive free gas ...
    Figure 5: dorsal decubitus view
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    Figure 6: lateral view
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