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Abdominal pain refers to discomfort in the space between the chest and pelvis. It can happen for many reasons, including gas, ulcers, and a urinary infection.
Symptoms often resolve quickly on their own or with basic treatment. Abdominal pain, especially with severe or chronic symptoms, can also be a sign of more serious underlying medical conditions, including cancer or organ failure.
Sudden and severe or long-lasting abdominal pain may require immediate medical treatment.
Digestive problems are considered the most common cause of abdominal pain. Discomfort or irregularities in any organ or part of the abdomen can cause pain that radiates throughout the entire area.
Many people refer to abdominal pain simply as a stomachache. However, the abdomen contains many vital organs, muscles, blood vessels, and connective tissues that include:
- small and large intestines
- the appendix
The main artery of the heart (aorta) and another heart vein (inferior vena cava) pass through the abdomen too. The abdomen is also home to the core muscles, the four groups of abdominal muscles that give the trunk stability and keep organs in place and protected.
Because there are a lot of areas that can be affected, abdominal pain may have many causes.
Abdominal pain is a common complaint and can be caused or complicated by a variety of factors.
Common causes include:
1. Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
In this case, the abdominal pain is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and loose, fluid-filled stools that occur much sooner and more frequently than normal after eating.
Bacteria or viruses cause most cases, and symptoms usually resolve within a few days. Symptoms that last longer than 2 days may be a sign of more serious health problems, such as infection or inflammatory conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease.
Common symptoms include:
- abdominal cramping
Get some tips here on how to tell the difference between a stomach virus and food poisoning.
Gas occurs when bacteria in the small intestine break down foods that the body finds intolerant.
An increased pressure of gas in the intestine can cause sharp pain. Gas can also cause tightness or restriction in the abdomen and flatulence or belching.
Certain foods can cause gas. Click here to find out which foods might be causing gas.
3. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
For unknown reasons, those with IBS are less able to digest certain foods or types of foods.
Abdominal pain is the primary symptom for many people with IBS and is often relieved after a bowel movement. Other common symptoms include gas, nausea, cramping, and bloating.
Would you like to know more about IBS? Find out five important facts about this condition.
4. Acid reflux
Occasionally stomach acids travel backward, moving up into the throat. This reflux almost always causes a burning sensation and accompanying pain.
Acid reflux also causes abdominal symptoms, such as bloating or cramps.
Learn more here about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of acid reflux.
Vomiting often causes abdominal pain as stomach acids travel backward through the digestive tract, irritating tissues along the way.
The physical act of vomiting also may cause abdominal muscles to become sore. A wide range of factors can trigger vomiting, ranging from an intestinal blockage to alcohol poisoning.
Click here to find out more about the many possible causes of vomiting.
When the stomach lining becomes inflamed or swollen, pain may occur. Nausea, vomiting, gas, and bloating are other common symptoms of gastritis.
Click here to learn more about the why inflammation of the stomach occurs.
7. Food intolerances
When the body is unable to digest food materials, they are broken down by intestinal and stomach bacteria, which release gas in the process.
When large amounts of undigested materials are present, a lot of gas is produced, causing pressure and pain.
Nausea, vomiting, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain are other symptoms.
A person with a food intolerance will have a hypersensitivity to certain foods. Find out more here about the symptoms and causes of food intolerance, and how to prevent a reaction.
When too much waste collects in the bowel, this increases the pressure on the colon, which may cause pain.
It can happen for many reasons, including:
- too little fiber or fluid in the diet
- the use of certain medications
- low levels of physical activity
It can also be a sign of a neurological disorder or a blockage in the intestine. If constipation persists and is uncomfortable, the person should see a doctor.
Click here to learn more about constipation, what causes it, and how to resolve it.
9. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a long-term condition that involves persistent acid reflux.
It can cause abdominal pain, heartburn, and nausea. In time, it can lead to complications, such as inflammation of the esophagus.
It is a common problem, but treatment is available.
Find out more here about GERD, and how to prevent and treat it.
10. Stomach or peptic ulcers
Ulcers or wounds that will not heal tend to cause severe and persistent abdominal pain. It can also lead to bloating, indigestion, and weight loss.
The most common causes of stomach and peptic ulcers are the bacteria H. pylori and the overuse or continued use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS).
If you would like to know more about stomach ulcers, click here.
11. Crohn’s disease
Crohn’s causes inflammation of the digestive tract lining, which results in pain, gas, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and bloating.
Given its chronic nature, the condition may lead to malnutrition, causing weight loss and exhaustion.
It can be a serious condition, but symptoms may not be present all the time, as there will be times of remission. Treatment is available to help people manage the symptoms.
Find out more about Crohn’s disease in our article here.
12. Celiac disease
Celiac disease happens when a person has an allergy to gluten, a protein found in many grains, such as wheat and barley. It causes inflammation in the small intestine, resulting in pain.
Diarrhea and bloating are also common symptoms. Over time, malnutrition can occur, resulting in weight loss and exhaustion.
People with this condition need to avoid gluten.
Learn more here about celiac disease, including what to eat and what to avoid if you have this allergy.
13. Pulled or strained muscles
Because many daily activities require the use of the abdominal muscles, injury or strain is common.
Many people also focus heavily on abdominal exercises, increasing the risk of damage. Doing more sit-ups than usual, for example, may lead to muscle pain in the abdominal area.
14. Menstrual cramps or endometriosis
Menstruation can cause inflammation and pain in the abdomen. Bloating, gas, cramping, and constipation can also occur during menstruation, causing abdominal discomfort.
Women who have endometriosis may experience more severe or chronic inflammation and pain. Endometriosis is a condition in which tissue that normally grows in the uterus develops in other parts of the body, usually in the pelvic area but sometimes elsewhere.
Learn more about menstrual pain and endometriosis in our main articles on these topics.
15. Urinary tract and bladder infections
Urinary tract infections are most often caused by bacteria, primarily E.coli species, that colonize the urethra and bladder, causing a bladder infection or cystitis.
Symptoms include pain, pressure, and bloating in the lower abdominal area. Most infections also cause painful urination and cloudy, strong-smelling urine.
Find out more about urinary tract infections, why they happen, and how to treat them.
In some cases, abdominal pain is a sign of a medical condition that can be fatal without immediate medical care.
Less common causes of abdominal pain include:
- appendicitis (ruptured appendix) or any other ruptured abdominal organ
- kidney infection, disease, or stones
- hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)
- gallbladder stones (hard deposits in the gallbladder)
- food poisoning
- parasitic infections
- abdominal organ infection or infarction (when the organ dies due to lack of blood supply)
- cardiac conditions, such as atypical angina or congestive heart failure
- organ cancer, notably stomach, pancreatic, or bowel cancer
- hiatal hernia
- cysts that have become invasive or compromise organ space or function
Most cases of abdominal pain are not serious, and symptoms resolve with basic home care, such as rest and hydration, within hours to days.
Many medications available over-the-counter or online, such as antacids and gas medications, also help reduce and manage symptoms.
Acute (sudden and severe) or chronic (long-lasting) abdominal pain, however, are often signs of conditions that do require medical attention and treatment.
Symptoms that require medical attention include:
- unexplained weight loss
- unexplained exhaustion
- changes or disturbances in bowel movements, such as chronic constipation or diarrhea, that do not resolve within a few hours or days
- minor rectal (anal) bleeding or blood in stool
- unusual vaginal discharge
- chronic pain that continues after taking over-the-counter medications or returns after stopping prescribed medication
- signs of urinary tract infection
Symptoms that require emergency care include:
- sudden, severe pain, especially if accompanied by a fever over 102°F
- severe pain that is very concentrated
- bloody or black stool that may be sticky
- uncontrollable vomiting, especially if vomit includes blood
- the abdomen is extremely painful and sensitive to the touch
- being unable to urinate
- fainting or becoming unconscious
- pain that gets dramatically worse quickly
- pain in the chest, especially around the ribs, extending into the abdomen
- severe abdominal pain that improves with lying very still
Though rare, it is important for people experiencing these symptoms to seek emergency medical attention.