Sharp stomach pain that comes and goes in waves can have many causes. These can range from mild gas to severe underlying conditions. Treatment will depend on what is causing the symptoms.

In this article, learn about the causes of sharp stomach pain that comes and goes and when to see a doctor.

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It is difficult to diagnose the cause of sharp, inconsistent stomach pain based on that symptom alone. Taking note of other symptoms and possible contributing factors is important.

Causes of sharp stomach pain that comes and goes include:

1. Gas

Gas and bloating are very common problems. They tend to be cyclical.

Although gas does not cause long-term harm, the pain can range from dull and mild to sharp and severe. It may get steadily worse over several minutes, then get better, only to grow worse again.

Numerous issues can cause gas, including:

Over-the-counter (OTC) gas remedies often help reduce this pain. Some people also find relief from heating pads or a gentle stomach massage.

People who frequently experience severe gas pain should see a doctor.

2. Stomach viruses

Stomach viruses, such as norovirus, cause intense cramping that may come and go. The cramping usually precedes vomiting, which offers temporary relief.

Symptoms of stomach viruses can last 1–10 days, depending on the virus. Some people also develop a fever or muscle aches.

It is crucial to drink lots of water during this time. If symptoms get worse or a person seems dehydrated, call a doctor.

3. Muscle pain and injuries

Muscle overuse, a sedentary lifestyle, and trauma from falling or other injuries can cause pain in the abdominal or back muscles.

Pain that appears only in certain positions, while lifting, or after exercise could be a sign of a muscle injury.

A muscle injury is not a medical emergency. Most people can treat muscle injuries at home with rest, hot and cold packs, and gentle massage.

If home treatment does not work or the pain is very intense, it is best to see a doctor.

4. Liver and gallbladder issues

Pain in the upper right stomach that comes and goes could signal a problem with the gallbladder, such as gallstones.

Gallstones can block the ducts of the gallbladder, making digestion more difficult. This causes pain shortly after eating, especially after very fatty meals. The pain may last 1–6 hours.

Gallstones sometimes pass on their own. If they do not, they can block the biliary ducts, affecting liver function. Untreated gallstones may also cause problems with the pancreas.

If a person experiences vomiting, pale stool, or a fever along with symptoms of gallstones, they should seek emergency medical treatment.

Read more about treatment for gallstones.

5. Digestive disorders

A wide range of digestive disorders can cause periodic sharp pain in the stomach. In most cases, the pain worsens shortly after a meal as the body works to digest food.

Some potential culprits include:

These digestive disorders can be intensely painful, but they do not usually constitute a medical emergency.

Keeping a food log can help a doctor diagnose the problem and provide a treatment plan. Pain medication, heating pads, and rest may also help in the short term.

6. Ulcers

An ulcer is a sore in the lining of the stomach or intestine. Causes of ulcers include:

People with ulcers typically experience a sharp, burning sensation in the stomach. The burning may travel up the chest and into the mouth or throat, causing heartburn or indigestion.

Symptoms are usually worse after a large or very acidic meal. A person may have no symptoms for several months, then experience them again.

Antacids may help. A doctor can also prescribe medication to treat the pain.

7. Menstrual cramps

Menstrual cramps or period pains can feel sharp or dull. They may affect just one area of the abdomen or spread to the back and legs. Some people also experience diarrhea or nausea.

Menstrual cramps may be continuous or come in waves. They typically occur during or right before a period.

A heating pad, OTC pain relievers, and gentle stretching can help relieve menstrual pain.

Menstrual cramps are not dangerous, but severe camps can make daily life difficult. A person should see a doctor if menstrual cramps are severe, worsen, or interfere with work or school.

Read about home remedies for menstrual cramps.

8. Ovarian cysts

Cysts in the ovaries are common and usually harmless. Most people do not realize they have them. Many ovarian cysts form after ovulation and then disappear a few months later.

Ovarian cysts can cause intermittent pain. The pain from an ovarian cyst is often low in the abdomen and on just one side. It may be worse during specific times of the menstrual cycle.

If a person suspects they have a painful ovarian cyst, they can talk with a doctor. The doctor can diagnose a cyst using imaging tests.

OTC pain medication and applying warm compresses can help relieve the pain.

Sudden, intense pain in the lower pelvis may be a sign of ovarian torsion, which is when the ovary twists. This is sometimes a complication of a cyst.

Ovarian torsion is a medical emergency. Without treatment, it can cause severe internal bleeding, damage to the ovary, or an infection.

9. Ovulation

During ovulation, an egg ruptures from its follicle in the ovary and enters the fallopian tube. Some people experience ovulation pain or mittelschmerz toward the middle of the menstrual cycle.

Ovulation pain is not dangerous and can even be a helpful fertility cue if a person is trying to conceive.

10. Braxton-Hicks contractions

In pregnant people, sharp abdominal pain may indicate labor or Braxton-Hicks contractions.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are sometimes called “false labor”, as they may feel like real contractions.

They are often irregular or appear only at certain times, such as if a pregnant person is dehydrated.

Doctors can sometimes determine the likely cause of stomach pain based on its location. The table below shows some possible causes of abdominal pain in different areas.

Upper abdominal painMidabdominal painLower abdominal pain
gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)GERDbowel obstruction
gallbladder irritationCrohn’s diseaseovulation or period pain
bowel obstructionbowel obstructionovarian cyst (on one side)
gallstones celiac diseaseovarian torsion (on one side)
trapped gastrapped gastrapped gas
peptic ulcer

Many causes of intermittent stomach pain, such as ovulation pain, do not require treatment. Others, such as food sensitivities, are not medical emergencies. Seek medical care for severe pain or pain that gets worse with time.

Talk with a doctor about:

  • unexplained stomach pain that worsens over time
  • worsening menstrual cramps or cramps that are regularly severe
  • worsening digestive symptoms
  • symptoms of an ulcer or a digestive disorder
  • occasional, mild pain in the upper right abdomen

Symptoms that may require emergency medical attention include:

  • intense stomach pain during pregnancy
  • symptoms of premature labor
  • intense pain in the upper right abdomen
  • bloody diarrhea
  • vomiting and symptoms of dehydration, such as sunken eyes or dry lips
  • sudden, intense, unexplained abdominal pain

Below are some common questions about sudden sharp stomach pain.

Why would someone keep getting random sharp pains in the stomach?

There are various causes of random sharp stomach pains, including:

  • gas
  • stomach virus
  • injured muscles
  • digestive disorders, such as IBS

People should speak with a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis for sharp stomach pain that keeps returning.

Should someone be concerned about stomach pain that comes and goes?

In many cases, intermittent stomach pain is not a sign of something serious and will go away with time. However, people should speak with a doctor if the pain worsens, does not go away, or is consistently severe.

When should someone go to the ER for sharp abdominal pain?

A person should seek emergency medical attention if they experience the following symptoms:

  • intense pain in the upper right abdomen
  • intense stomach pain during pregnancy
  • sudden, intense, unexplained abdominal pain
  • symptoms of premature labor
  • bloody diarrhea
  • vomiting and symptoms of dehydration, such as dry lips or sunken eyes

What causes a sharp pain in the stomach every 10 minutes?

Regular stomach pain could be due to a wide range of causes, such as menstrual cramps, gas, or Braxton-Hicks contractions. People should speak with a doctor for a diagnosis.

Sharp, intermittent stomach pain is difficult to ignore, especially when it occurs with other symptoms.

Although many causes of stomach pain are harmless, others can lead to severe complications. If a person is unsure about their stomach pain, it is best to speak with a doctor.

It is almost impossible to diagnose the cause of stomach pain based on symptoms alone. A doctor may perform imaging scans, ask about a person’s medical history, or examine the stomach to get the right diagnosis.

Prompt treatment can reduce or relieve pain and prevent complications in most cases.