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Abdominal radiography in “body packers”
  1. Jonathan Costello, Specialist Registrar,
  2. Will Townend, Specialist Registrar
  1. Department of Emergency Medicine, Manchester Royal Infirmary, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9WL, UK;


    A short cut review was carried out to establish whether an abdominal radiograph has clinical utility in the management of patients who claim to have swallowed drug filled packages. Twelve papers were found using the reported search, of which two presented the best evidence to answer the clinical question. The author, date and country of publication, patient group studied, study type, relevant outcomes, results and study weaknesses of these best papers are tabulated. A clinical bottom line is stated.

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    Report by Jonathan Costello, Specialist RegistrarChecked by Will Townend, Specialist Registrar

    Clinical scenario

    A 26 year old man in police custody is brought to the emergency department with abdominal pain. He claims to have ingested a large number of drug filled packages. He is tachycardic. Examination is otherwise normal. You wonder if plain abdominal radiography is indicated.

    Three part question

    In [patients suspected of internal drug carriage (“Body packers”, “body stuffers”)] is [plain abdominal radiography] of [diagnostic utility]?

    Search strategy

    Medline 1966-03/04 using the Ovid interface. [(Exp Radiography, Abdominal OR abdominal OR abdominal OR plain abdominal OR plain film AND (body OR body OR body pack$.mp OR body stuff$.mp)] LIMIT to human AND English language.

    Search outcome

    Altogether 12 papers were found of which two were relevant to the topic of interest (table 1).

    Table 1


    The possibility of internal carriage of drugs is an increasingly frequent presentation to urban emergency departments. A diagnostic dilemma is usual because of the credibility of the presentation. It is important, therefore, that clinicians understand the utility of any investigations used. In paticular the failure to appreciate the possibility of a false negative result might prove fatal.


    A single abdominal radiograph is insufficiently sensitive to rule out abdominal drug carriage. However, specificivity is high and a positive finding is diagnostic.

    Report by Jonathan Costello, Specialist RegistrarChecked by Will Townend, Specialist Registrar