The pain of the inside of the abdomen or the outer muscle wall, ranging from mild and temporary to severe and requiring emergency treatment. Abdominal pain can have causes that are not for an underlying disease. Examples include constipation, wind, overeating, stress, or muscle stress.
What is Abdominal Pain?
- Abdominal pain refers to cramping, dull ache, or a sharp, burning, or twisting pain in the tummy (abdomen). Abdominal pain is also called stomach, belly, gut, or stomach pain.
- The abdomen contains the major organs such as the stomach, large and small intestines, appendix, gallbladder, spleen, kidneys, and pancreas. The largest artery and vein in the body are also in the abdomen.
- Abdominal pain can be very serious, but most abdominal pain is caused by a minor upset or stomach “bug” and does not last long. Minor abdominal pain is very common, and people may experience an upset stomach or cramping every few months. You can usually treat abdominal pain yourself and it will go away within a few days.
- Localized pain is defined in one area of the abdomen. This type of pain is usually caused by a problem in a particular organ. Stomach ulcers (open sores on the inner lining of the abdomen) are the most common cause of localized pain.
- Cramping-like pain may be associated with diarrhea, constipation, bloating, or gas. In women, it can be connected with menstruation, miscarriage, or reproductive complications. This pain comes and goes, and may go away on its own without treatment.
- Colonic pain is a symptom of more serious conditions, such as gallstones or kidney stones. This pain comes on suddenly and can look like a severe muscle spasm.
Abdominal pain can be caused by many conditions. However, the major causes are infection, abnormal growths, inflammation, blockage, and intestinal disturbances.
Infections of the throat, guts, and blood can cause bacteria to enter the digestive tract, causing abdominal pain. These infections can also lead to changes in metabolism, like diarrhea or constipation.
Cramps related to menstruation are also a potential source of lower abdominal pain, but they are commonly known to cause pelvic pain.
Other common causes of abdominal pain include:
Chronic abdominal pain is also caused by diseases that affect the digestive system. The most common are:
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- irritable bowel syndrome or spastic colon
- Crohn's disease
- Lactose intolerance
Causes of severe abdominal pain include:
- organ rupture or near-rupture (like a burst appendix or appendicitis)
- gallbladder stones
- kidney stones
- kidney infection
The cause of abdominal pain can be diagnosed by several tests. Before ordering the tests, your doctor will perform a physical exam. This includes light pressure on various areas of your abdomen to check for tenderness and swelling.
This information, combined with the severity of the pain and where it is in the abdomen, will help your doctor decide which tests to order.
Imaging tests, such as MRIs, ultrasounds, and x-rays, are used to visualize in detail the organs, tissues, and other structures in the abdomen. These tests can help in diagnosing tumors, fractures, ruptures, and inflammation.
Other tests include:
Blood, urine, and stool samples can also be taken to look for evidence of bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections.
Common causes of gastrointestinal abdominal pain, such as gas, indigestion (dyspepsia), constipation, and upset stomach will likely go away within a few hours to day, even without treatment. You can try over-the-counter (OTC) medications for faster relief. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you choose the right medicine. OTC options include:
- Antacids and acid reducers
- Antigas products like Maalox
- Anti-nausea medication
- Stool softeners for constipation
Other gastrointestinal causes of abdominal pain, such as food poisoning, gastritis, or peptic ulcer disease, may also go away after the stomach or intestinal lining has a chance to heal. Medical treatments can include:
- Antibiotics for bacterial causes
- Acid reducers and acid blockers
- Electrolyte replacement fluids for vomiting or diarrhea to prevent dehydration
Treatment alternatives for other causes of abdominal pain depend on the cause. Treatment for chronic conditions, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome, will most likely involve a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and possibly surgery at some point. Acute conditions, such as bowel obstruction, appendicitis, or gallstones, may involve hospital care and possibly surgery to repair or remove diseased tissue.
When to see a Doctor?
You should see a physician for abdominal pain if it is severe or mild abdominal pain lasting more than a week. The so-called "red flag" symptoms (warning sign that is a potentially serious underlying disease) that can indicate serious or life-threatening illness include:
- The abdomen is stiff or hard and tender when you or someone else touches it
- Blood in stool or vomit
- Constipation with vomiting
- Difficulty in breathing
- High fever (over 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Pulsating mass in the abdomen
- Rapid pulse or rapid breathing
- Severe pain spreading from the original location, such as to the chest, arm, neck, jaw, or shoulder
To help diagnose the cause of abdominal pain, questions your physician may ask you include:
- Describe your abdominal pain. Is it dull or sharp and stabbing?
- Is abdominal pain constant or does it come and go?
- Where do you feel the pain?
- What other symptoms are you experiencing besides abdominal pain?
- What medications, herbs, and supplements are you taking?
In many cases, doctors and other providers can determine or at least suspect the cause simply by your symptoms. For example, abdominal pain accompanied by painful urination and fever suggests a bladder infection. Imaging tests and blood and urine tests may be needed to identify the cause of abdominal pain and determine the best treatment.
In some cases, the cause of abdominal pain can be difficult to diagnose. If you have persistent abdominal pain without a diagnosis, seek a second opinion.
Getting an accurate medical diagnosis is the safest first step in relieving abdominal pain because a doctor or other health care professional can perform an exam and order tests to rule out serious causes. However, if you have generalized abdominal pain and suspect it is because of minor gastrointestinal problems, consider these home remedies:
- Baking soda for heartburn, mix 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces of water and drink it.
- Ginger to aid digestion and reduce nausea. Ginger root is the best; try soaking ginger roots in hot water or tea.
- Heating bags compress on your stomach for cramp-like pain
- A liquid diet of broth and sweetened, non-caffeinated sports drinks
- Lying tilted to the left side, which can help you pass the gas
- Modify your diet to exclude problematic foods, such as dairy products, beans, broccoli, and potential allergens
- Blackstrap molasses for constipation. Take 1 tablespoon per day.
- Tylenol for pain or fever