Abdominal spasms — which some people refer to as stomach spasms — occur when muscles in the stomach or intestines contract. These spasms can range in intensity and duration.
Stomach spasms refer specifically to cramps and spasms in the stomach. Abdominal spasms can stem from problems in the stomach, intestines, or elsewhere in the abdominal area.
There are many possible types and causes of abdominal cramping and spasms. Often, there is no serious cause. Sometimes, however, they can indicate an underlying condition that needs attention.
Learn more about some causes of abdominal spasms in this article, and some of the treatment options.
Here are some conditions that can cause abdominal spasms:
Cramps and abdominal pain are common symptoms of constipation.
- having less frequent bowel movements (usually fewer than three a week)
- passing small or hard stools
- stools that are hard, dry, or lumpy
- straining and pain when passing stool
Dehydration can cause an imbalance of electrolytes in the body (particularly sodium and potassium). Muscles require these nutrients to function correctly, so they may begin to cramp and spasm when they do not have enough.
Additional symptoms of dehydration
- dark urine
- extreme thirst
Too much gas in the digestive system may lead to spasms as the muscles in the intestines strain to let out the gas.
Excess gas can also
- bloating and feeling full
- passing gas
4. Gastritis and gastroenteritis
Gastritis and gastroenteritis may also cause the following
- diarrhea (in cases of gastroenteritis only)
5. Ileus and gastroparesis
Digested food passes through the body’s intestines thanks to wave-like muscle contractions called peristalsis. When peristalsis slows down or stops at any stage of the intestines, it is known as ileus.
When movement slows down consistently, it is known as gastroparesis.
Several things can cause ileus, including:
- lack of activity
- use of narcotics
Gastroparesis and ileus can cause abdominal spasms and pain, especially after meals.
- abdominal discomfort
- feeling full
- low appetite
6. Infectious colitis
Colitis refers to inflammation of the colon (large intestine). There are many types of colitis. Inflammation that stems from an infection is known as infectious colitis.
In addition to intestinal spasms, the symptoms of infectious colitis
- diarrhea, possibly with blood
- frequent bowel movements
- rectal and abdominal pain
Infectious colitis may be caused by consuming contaminated food or water that contains pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, or Giardia.
7. Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is the term given to a group of chronic conditions involving inflammation of the digestive tract.
- weight loss
8. Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional digestive disorder, which means the digestive tract appears undamaged but still causes symptoms.
Along with abdominal spasms, IBS causes:
- abdominal pain
9. Ischemic colitis and ischemic enteritis
Both conditions lead to abdominal cramps or spasms and blood in stool.
When this happens in the small intestine, it is called ischemic enteritis.
10. Muscle strain
Working the abdominal muscles too hard or too often can lead to muscle spasms and abdominal pain. People may notice it after doing crunches and sit-ups.
It can result from:
- a tear in muscle tissues
- overuse of a muscle
- not taking sufficient time to recover before returning to exercise
- not warming up before exercise
- using exercise equipment incorrectly
People with muscle strain may also notice muscle tenderness and pain that worsens with movement.
Changes in the body during pregnancy can lead to abdominal pain and spasms. Most cases of abdominal spasms during pregnancy are not a cause for concern. However, women who experience regular spasms or spasms that are painful should see a doctor.
The following can cause spasms during pregnancy:
Braxton-Hicks are known as false labor. Contractions typically occur in the third trimester, although some people experience them from the second trimester.
The contractions tend to be:
- irregular in intensity
- more uncomfortable than painful
- in a specific point in the abdomen, usually at the front
Contractions that ease up rather than get worse are most likely Braxton-Hicks contractions, especially if they occur earlier than the expected labor.
Gas often occurs during pregnancy due to increased levels of the hormone progesterone.
While progesterone is necessary for a healthy pregnancy, it also causes the intestinal muscles to relax, which slows down digestion and leads to a buildup of gas.
Diagnosis will aim to identify the underlying cause of abdominal spasms.
A doctor will:
- consider the symptoms
- carry out a physical examination
- take a medical history
They will also ask a person about symptoms, when they started, if the spasms have any triggers, and if there are other symptoms.
A doctor may ask a person to keep a log of when the spasms occur, what they ate that day, and if they did any physical activity to help determine the cause.
In many cases, abdominal spasms will resolve on their own and are not a cause for concern. However, severe or frequent spasms can indicate a more serious condition that needs investigation.
If a person experiences any of the following symptoms, they should seek immediate medical treatment:
- blood in the stool
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- emotional distress due to spasms
- severe pain
- skin that appears yellow
- weight loss
- black, tarry stools
The treatment for abdominal spasms will depend on the underlying cause.
For issues such as IBD and infectious colitis, a doctor will likely prescribe medication to treat or manage the condition.
They may also recommend:
- dietary changes
- other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or exercising
- home remedies, for instance, drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated
Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available for abdominal spasms. The medication used will depend on the underlying cause.
A doctor may prescribe one of the following:
- Aminosalicylates and corticosteroids. These drugs can treat some forms of IBD.
- Antacids or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These medications reduce the levels of stomach acid that may be contributing to gastritis-related spasms.
- Antibiotics. A doctor may prescribe these for bacterial infections that cause gastritis or gastroenteritis.
- Antispasmodic medications. These may help reduce spasms in people with IBS.
Home remedies can help with abdominal spasms, but people should speak with a doctor before using them, as they may not be suitable or safe for everyone.
Some home remedies that may be effective include:
- Rest. People with spasms due to muscle strain may find relief by resting the muscles and avoiding abdominal exercises.
- Heat. Applying a heat pack or hot water bottle to the abdomen can relax the muscles and ease spasms.
- Massage. Gently massaging the abdomen muscles can improve blood flow and ease cramps and spasms.
- Hydration. Drinking plenty of water can help avoid dehydration, which may cause abdominal spasms or make them worse. Sports drinks that replenish electrolytes may help, but people should use them in moderation, as they are often high in sugar.
- Epsom salt baths. Warm baths using Epsom salts are a popular home remedy for many cramps and spasms. The warm water relaxes the muscles, and Epsom salts are high in magnesium, which helps muscular cramps.
The following steps can help prevent abdominal spasms:
Staying hydrated. Dehydration can sometimes lead to abdominal spasms, so it is important to drink enough fluids. People also need more fluid in hot weather and during intense exercise.
Avoiding problematic foods. Some foods cause digestive distress, spasms, and other symptoms. Consider limiting alcohol intake, spicy foods, and high-fat foods to see if the spasms improve.
Making other dietary changes if necessary. People with gastritis, IBS, and IBD may find that making dietary changes eases their symptoms. For example, limiting fiber intake can reduce painful gas. It can be helpful to work with a doctor or dietitian to determine what to eat and avoid.
Managing underlying conditions. Spasms related to conditions such as IBS or IBD may disappear or lessen if a person can manage them with medication, lifestyle changes, or both.
The outlook for people with abdominal spasms depends on the underlying cause. They often resolve with minimal or no treatment, but some causes may need medical attention.
To improve the outlook, a person should consult a doctor quickly if spasms persist or get worse, or if bloody stools, fever, or vomiting also occur.
Here are some questions people often ask about muscle spasms in the abdomen.
What causes abdominal cramps?
A range of issues can cause abdominal cramps and spasms, ranging from gas to serious digestive diseases, such as IBD. Muscle spasms can also happen during pregnancy and include Braxton Hicks contractions.
What do abdominal muscle spasms feel like?
They can feel like a twitch or a cramp in the abdomen. They can range from mild to severely painful, depending on the cause.
When should I see a doctor about muscle spasms in the abdomen?
People should seek medical advice if spasms don’t go away, if they are severe, or if they occur with other symptoms, such as diarrhea with blood.
Abdominal cramps and spasms can happen for a wide range of reasons, ranging from gas to colitis. In some cases, a person may need prescription drugs to manage the condition. Lifestyle and home remedies can also help.
Anyone who has concerns about abdominal pain should seek medical advice.