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.
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:
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:
- stomach viruses
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- swallowing too much air
- food sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance
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.
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.
An ulcer is a sore in the lining of the stomach or intestine. Causes of ulcers include:
- long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen
- a Helicobacter pylori infection
- noncancerous stomach growths
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 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
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.
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 pain||Midabdominal pain||Lower abdominal pain|
|gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)||GERD||bowel obstruction|
|gallbladder irritation||Crohn’s disease||ovulation or period pain|
|bowel obstruction||bowel obstruction||ovarian cyst (on one side)|
|gallstones||celiac disease||ovarian torsion (on one side)|
|trapped gas||trapped gas||trapped gas|
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
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.