Stomach Aches

You know that awful feeling: you’re nauseous; your stomach feels like it’s tied in a knot, and you don’t even want to move. What does your pain mean? Well, let’s talk today about abdominal pain. So, what causes abdominal pain? Almost everyone has pain in their belly at one time or another. Most of the time, a serious medical problem is not the cause, and how bad your pain is doesn’t always reflect the seriousness of the problem causing your pain. You may feel very bad pain if you are having gas or stomach cramps due to viral gastroenteritis, better known as a stomach virus. And some life-threatening conditions, such as colon cancer or a very early case of appendicitis, may cause only mild pain, or no pain at all. The important thing to know about abdominal pain is when you need immediate medical care. Less serious causes of abdominal pain include constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, lactose intolerance, food poisoning, and a stomach virus. Other, more serious, causes include appendicitis, an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a bowel blockage, cancer, and gastroesophageal reflux. Sometimes, you may have abdominal pain from a problem that isn’t in your belly, like a heart attack, menstrual cramps, or pneumonia.

Types of abdominal pain

Not all abdominal pain is the same. For example, if you’re experiencing acute abdominal pain, you’ve most likely only been dealing with the discomfort for about a week, maybe less.

Chronic abdominal pain, on the other hand, is pain that’s constant or recurring. It lasts for a period of 3 months or longer.

Since there are a number of gastrointestinal and systemic disorders that lead to abdominal pain, doctors and healthcare professionals sometimes have a hard time understanding the root cause of the pain.

Progressive abdominal pain is pain that gets worse over time. Typically other symptoms occur as the abdominal pain progresses. Progressive abdominal pain is often a sign of something more serious. Read on to learn more about the different types of abdominal pain, including what and where the pain occurs and potential causes.

What is abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain may be felt anywhere between the chest and groin region of your body. The pain may be generalized, localized, or it may feel like cramps in your belly. If you have cramping or discomfort in your stomach, it may be due to gas, bloating, or constipation. Or it might be a sign of a more serious medical condition.

Colicky pain in the abdomen region comes and goes. One moment, you may feel fine, but the next, you may experience sharp, sudden pain in your abdomen. Kidney stones and gallstones are often the cause of this type of pain.

What causes abdominal pain?

Many conditions can cause abdominal pain. But the main causes are:

  • infection
  • abnormal growths
  • inflammation
  • obstruction (blockage)
  • intestinal disorders
  • inflammation
  • diseases that affect the organs in the abdomen

Infections in the throat, intestines, and blood can cause bacteria to enter your digestive tract, resulting in abdominal pain. These infections may also cause changes in digestion, like diarrhea or constipation.

Cramps associated with menstruation are also a potential source of lower abdominal pain, but these are more commonly known to cause pelvic pain.

Other common causes of abdominal pain include:

  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
  • acid reflux (when stomach contents leak backward into the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms)
  • vomiting
  • stress

Diseases that affect the digestive system can also cause chronic abdominal pain. The most common are:

  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • irritable bowel syndrome or spastic colon (a disorder that causes abdominal pain, cramping, and changes in bowel movements)
  • Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel disease)
  • lactose intolerance (the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and milk products)

Causes of severe abdominal pain include:

  • organ rupture or near-rupture (like a burst appendix, or appendicitis)
  • gallbladder stones (known as gallstones)
  • kidney stones
  • kidney infection

The location of the pain within the abdomen may be a clue as to its cause.

Pain that’s generalized throughout the abdomen (not in one specific area) may indicate:

  • appendicitis (inflammation of the appendix)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • traumatic injury
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • urinary tract infection
  • the flu

Pain that’s focused in the lower abdomen may indicate:

  • appendicitis
  • intestinal obstruction
  • ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy that occurs outside the womb)

In people assigned female at birth, pain in the reproductive organs of the lower abdomen can be caused by:

  • severe menstrual pain (called dysmenorrhea)
  • ovarian cysts
  • miscarriage
  • fibroids
  • endometriosis
  • pelvic inflammatory disease
  • ectopic pregnancy

Upper abdominal pain may be caused by:

  • gallstones
  • heart attack
  • hepatitis (liver inflammation)
  • pneumonia

Pain in the center of the abdomen might be from:

  • appendicitis
  • gastroenteritis
  • injury
  • uremia (buildup of waste products in your blood)

Lower left abdominal pain may be caused by:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • cancer
  • kidney infection
  • ovarian cysts
  • appendicitis

Upper left abdominal pain is sometimes caused by:

  • enlarged spleen
  • fecal impaction (hardened stool that can’t be eliminated)
  • injury
  • kidney infection
  • heart attack
  • cancer

Causes of lower right abdominal pain include:

  • appendicitis
  • hernia (when an organ protrudes through a weak spot in the abdominal muscles)
  • kidney infection
  • cancer
  • flu

Upper right abdominal pain may result from:

  • hepatitis
  • injury
  • pneumonia
  • appendicitis

How is abdominal pain diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you detailed questions about your pain. They’ll want to know:

  • Where you feel it.
  • What it feels like.
  • How long you’ve had it.
  • If it comes and goes.
  • If it’s getting worse.
  • If it stays in one place or moves.
  • What makes it better or worse.
  • What other symptoms you have.

From your answers, your healthcare provider will try to determine if you need emergency treatment. Sometimes your healthcare provider will be able to tell right away that your pain is temporary and not serious. Sometimes they may suspect a more serious condition and may want to run some tests. And sometimes they won’t be able to solve the mystery on the first visit. Your pain may subside, or you may have to return for further investigation.

So, what do you do about abdominal pain?

Well, if you have mild abdominal pain, here are some helpful tips;

  • Try sipping water or other clear fluids.
  • Avoid solid food for the first few hours.
  • If you’ve been vomiting, wait 6 hours and then eat small amounts of mild foods like rice, applesauce, or crackers.
  • If your pain is high in your abdomen and occurs after meals, antacids may help, especially if you are feeling heartburn or indigestion.
  • You should seek medical attention if you have abdominal pain and are being treated for cancer, you can’t pass any stool, you’re vomiting blood, or you have chest, neck, or shoulder pain.

Call your doctor if you have abdominal pain that lasts 1 week or longer, if your pain doesn’t improve in 24 to 48 hours, if bloating lasts more than 2 days, or if you have diarrhea for more than 5 days.

Treatment and home remedies for abdominal pain

How abdominal pain is treated is highly dependent on the diagnosis. Medications that reduce inflammation may help with stomach pains resulting from ulcers.

But other conditions, like kidney stones, may require more intensive treatment like shock wave lithotripsy. Inflammation of the gall bladder might require gall bladder surgery.

Your doctor might prescribe a pain-modifying drug, like amitriptyline or trazodone, to address the pain. These may help change the way the brain processes pain signals.

If you and your doctor have determined that your abdominal pain is not the result of a serious medical condition, there are a number of home health remedies that may provide relief. Here’s a brief list:

  • bitters and soda
  • ginger
  • chamomile tea
  • BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apple sauce, toast)
  • peppermint
  • apple cider vinegar
  • heating pad
  • warm bath

When should I see my healthcare provider about my abdominal pain?

Always see your doctor if your pain is unexplained, persistent or severe, or if you have been injured or are pregnant.

Also, see your doctor if your pain is accompanied by any of these symptoms:

  • Persistent fever.
  • Persistent nausea or vomiting.
  • Blood in your stools, urine or vomit.
  • Swelling and tenderness to the touch.
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin).
  • Pain in any other part of your body.
  • Shortness of breath or symptoms that get worse with exertion.

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