Abdominal Pain: What You Should Know

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 02, 2024
12 min read

Abdominal pain refers to discomfort or other uncomfortable sensations that you feel in your belly area. Just about everybody, at one time or another, will get a bellyache.

Most causes of abdominal pain aren't reasons to worry, and your doctor can easily diagnose and treat the problem. But sometimes, it can be a sign of a serious illness that needs medical attention.

There are several types of abdominal pain, based on how quickly your pain starts and how long it lasts:

Acute. Acute abdominal pain starts over a few hours or days and may come with other symptoms. It’s pretty common and rarely much of a concern. It could be gas, for example. But if you have severe pain that comes on suddenly, you’re more likely to have something more serious that might require a trip to the emergency room, such as appendicitis.

Chronic. This type of pain lasts 3 months or more and may come and go. Chronic abdominal pain may occur along with other symptoms. What those symptoms might be depends on the cause of the pain. If you have an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease, you might have chronic diarrhea in addition to abdominal pain.

Progressive. This type of abdominal pain gets worse over time. Other symptoms typically develop along with the pain. Those additional symptoms depend on what’s causing the pain. It’s usually a sign of serious illness, including Crohn’s disease and different types of cancer.

Colicky. You get this type of abdominal pain in waves that stop and start suddenly. It’s frequently severe. Kidney stones are a common culprit.

Whether you've got a mild ache or serious cramps, abdominal pain can have many causes.

Keep in mind that most causes are not serious and the pain will ease on its own. Such causes include indigestion, constipation, a stomach virus, and menstrual cramps. But you should see a doctor if you don’t know the reason for it, if it does not go away, or if it’s severe. Call your doctor if you have abdominal pain while pregnant or after an injury. You should also call your doctor if you have the following in addition to your abdominal pain:

  • Persistent fever
  • Persistent nausea or vomiting
  • Blood in your poop, pee, or vomit
  • Abdomen that is swollen and tender to the touch
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin, called jaundice
  • Pain elsewhere in your body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Symptoms that worsen with exertion

The most common causes of abdominal pain can be grouped into categories. These are:

Pain caused by digestive issues:

  • Indigestion
  • Gas pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Certain food allergies and sensitivities
  • Food poisoning

Pain caused by inflammation due to:

  • Stomach flu, or viral gastroenteritis
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called chronic acid reflux
  • Urinary tract infection (UTI)

Reproductive pain in people with a uterus:

  • Menstrual cramps
  • Pain due to ovulation

Less common but more serious causes of abdominal pain include:

  • Appendicitis
  • Diverticulitis
  • Gallstones
  • Gallbladder inflammation, called cholecystitis
  • Hepatitis, including alcoholic hepatitis, toxic hepatitis, viral hepatitis, metabolic hepatitis, and autoimmune hepatitis
  • Certain types of cancer, including stomach, gallbladder, pancreatic, colon, ovarian, uterine, and liver cancer
  • Bile duct issues, such as cancer, stones, and strictures
  • Kidney stones
  • Kidney infection
  • Ulcers, such as stomach ulcers and duodenal ulcers
  • Pancreatitis, or inflamed pancreas
  • Gastritis, or inflamed stomach lining
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Bowel obstructions
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysms
  • Hernia
  • Heart attack
  • Angina
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Pneumonia
  • Low blood flow to your intestines caused by a blocked blood vessel, called mesenteric ischemia
  • Ectopic pregnancy (when a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus, for example, in a fallopian tube)

Abdominal pain can be a normal but unfortunate part of pregnancy and should not alarm you. But some types of pain require medical attention.

Common but harmless causes of abdominal pain in pregnancy include:

Round ligament pain. This can be sharp and stabbing, or dull and achy pain that lingers. It may occur as your uterus grows, stretching the two ligaments that connect your uterus and groin. It typically occurs in the second trimester.

Gas and constipation. Progesterone, a hormone released during pregnancy, can slow your digestion, leading to gas and constipation. Staying hydrated, getting plenty of fiber in your diet, exercising, and taking stool softeners can help.

Braxton-Hicks contractions. These may make your stomach muscles feel tight, or your stomach may feel hard and firm. They’re different from true contractions and are less severe. Staying hydrated may help reduce them.

Abdominal pain during pregnancy can also be a sign of something serious that requires immediate medical attention, including:

Ectopic pregnancy. This occurs when a fertilized egg does not implant in your uterus but in a fallopian tube or elsewhere. It’s uncommon, but when it happens, it can cause severe pain and bleeding. They typically occur between weeks 6 and 10 of pregnancy.

Placental abruption. This happens when your placenta separates from your uterus before birth. It’s life-threatening and causes constant pain. You also may have bloody leakage, or your water may break earlier than it should. Other signs include back pain and tenderness in your abdomen.

Miscarriage. In addition to abdominal pain, a miscarriage can cause mild to severe back pain, true contractions, bright red or brown bleeding that occurs with or without cramps, tissue or clot-like material passing out of your vagina, and a sudden drop in signs and symptoms of pregnancy.

Urinary tract infection (UTI). These can cause lower abdominal pain as well as pain when you urinate, like a burning sensation. If the pain spreads to your lower back, sides, or above your pelvis, the infection may have spread to your kidney, requiring immediate medical attention. Other signs include fever, nausea, sweats, or chills.

Preeclampsia. This causes upper abdominal pain, usually under your ribs on the right side of your body. Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pressure also may develop. Tests will detect high blood pressure and protein in your urine.

There are a variety of reasons that you could develop abdominal pain after you eat. They include:

Indigestion. You can trigger indigestion by overeating, eating too quickly, or eating fatty foods. You may experience pain in your central and upper abdomen, a burning sensation, and an early or long-lasting feeling of fullness. Gas, constipation, and nausea may occur as well.

Gas and gas pain. Normally, you pass gas as part of digestion. But when you have too much gas in your system, some of that gas can get trapped in your abdomen and cause abdominal pain. High-fiber foods can cause gas, as can swallowing too much air, which can happen if you talk while eating or drinking. Infections and digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance also can make you gassy.

Constipation. When your poop can’t move through your digestive tract, it can cause abdominal pain. Lots of things can cause constipation. Food-related causes include consuming lots of cheese or milk, too little fiber in your diet, and not drinking enough water.

Diarrhea. In addition to frequent bathroom trips, diarrhea also can trigger painful cramps in your abdomen. If you get diarrhea after you eat, it may be from food poisoning. Other causes include lactose intolerance, celiac disease, and sensitivity to sweeteners, such as honey, that contain fructose.

Food intolerances or sensitivities. If you have trouble digesting certain foods and you eat them anyway, you may experience abdominal pain and other uncomfortable symptoms. Lactose intolerance is a common example. It requires avoiding dairy products, such as milk, that contain an enzyme called lactose.

Food poisoning. This happens when you eat food contaminated with certain toxic organisms, including bacteria, fungi, parasites, or viruses. Abdominal pain is one of the many possible and unpleasant signs that you’ve eaten something you shouldn’t have.

The location of your abdominal pain can provide a clue to its cause. If your pain occurs on your lower left side, the most common culprit is diverticulitis of the colon. This is a complication of diverticulosis, a condition in which small pouches develop on the lining of your intestines. When these pouches become inflamed (a condition called diverticulitis), you’ll likely have severe abdominal pain. Irritable bowel syndrome also may cause pause pain in your lower left abdomen.

Pain in your upper left abdomen has many possible causes, including:

  • Inflammation of your pancreas, called pancreatitis
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Enlarged spleen, called splenomegaly
  • Inflammation of your stomach lining, called gastritis
  • Stomach ulcer
  • Bile reflux
  • Stomach cancer
  • Kidney infection
  • Kidney stone

Pain in this part of your abdomen can also start in your chest due to:

  • Heartburn
  • Angina, or chest pain caused by coronary artery disease
  • Chest pain not related to your heart
  • Heart attack
  • Inflammation of the tissue that surrounds your heart, called pericarditis
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the lining of your lungs, called pleurisy
  • Pulmonary embolism

If you have pain in your lower right abdomen, it could mean trouble with your appendix, such as appendicitis or, rarely, appendix cancer.

You have some major organs on the upper right side of your abdomen, including your liver and right kidney, as well as your gallbladder. Serious causes of pain in this area include:

  • Hepatitis, including alcoholic hepatitis, toxic hepatitis, viral hepatitis, metabolic hepatitis, and autoimmune hepatitis
  • Gallstones
  • Liver disease, including liver cancer
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Inflammation of your gallbladder, called cholecystitis
  • Kidney infection
  • Kidney stones
  • Duodenal ulcer
  • Large bowel obstruction

If you have long-lasting, or chronic, abdominal pain, it may come and go without getting worse over time. Conditions that can cause chronic abdominal pain include:

  • Celiac disease
  • Gallstones
  • Gastritis, or inflammation of the lining of your stomach
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Hernias
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease

You may also have colicky abdominal pain, which comes and goes and is often severe, due to more acute causes, such as kidney stones and gallstones.

If you have at least three stomachaches over 3 months, and they’re severe enough to keep you from doing everyday activities, you have what doctors call “recurrent abdominal pain.”

Recurrent abdominal pain symptoms

Recurrent abdominal pain feels different from person to person. The pain may start and stop without warning or could be ongoing. Some people describe it as a dull ache in their belly. Others have sharp cramps. Besides pain, there may be symptoms such as diarrhea or throwing up.

If your abdominal pain is serious, doesn't go away, or keeps coming back, talk to your doctor. Call 911 right away if your belly hurts because you had a recent injury there or if you have chest pain.

You should also contact your doctor as soon as you can if you have pain along with other symptoms, such as:

  • Inability to keep food down for more than 2 days
  • Signs of dehydration, including not urinating frequently, dark-colored urine, and being very thirsty
  • Inability to have a bowel movement, especially if you're also vomiting
  • Pain when you urinate or you need to urinate often

Also call your doctor if:

  • Your belly is tender to the touch
  • Pain lasts more than a few hours

You may have other symptoms that could indicate a problem inside your body that needs immediate treatment. Get medical care right away if you have abdominal pain and you also:

  • Vomit blood
  • Notice bloody or black, tarry stool
  • Have trouble breathing
  • Vomit constantly
  • Have swelling in your belly
  • Have yellow skin
  • Are pregnant
  • Have unexplained weight loss

These two symptoms often go hand in hand. When they persist, you should see a doctor. The following, some of them serious, are a few examples of conditions that can cause both abdominal pain and nausea:

  • Diverticulitis
  • Food poisoning
  • Food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance
  • Digestive issues, including constipation, diarrhea, and indigestion
  • Low blood flow to your intestines caused by a blocked blood vessel, called mesenteric ischemia
  • Ulcers
  • Inflammation of your pancreas, called pancreatitis
  • Hepatitis
  • Preeclampsia
  • UTI
  • Stomach flu, also called viral gastroenteritis

Since there are so many possible causes, your doctor will do a thorough physical exam. They’ll also ask you some questions about your symptoms and want to know what type of pain you have. For instance, is it a severe stabbing pain or a dull ache?

Some other questions your doctor may ask you:

  • Does it hurt throughout your abdomen, or is it just in one particular area?
  • When does it hurt? Always? More often in the morning or at night?
  • If the pain comes and goes, how long does it last each time?
  • Does it hurt after you eat certain foods or drink alcohol?
  • Are you in pain during menstruation?
  • How long have you been hurting?
  • Does the pain sometimes move into your lower back, shoulder, groin, or buttocks?
  • Do you take any medications or herbal supplements?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Does any activity ease the pain, such as eating or lying on one side?
  • Does an activity or position make the pain worse?
  • Were you injured recently?

After your exam is over and your doctor is done asking you questions, you may need tests to help find the cause of your pain. These tests may include:

  • Stool or urine tests
  • Blood tests
  • Barium swallows or enemas
  • Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy
  • CT scan
  • Ultrasound
  • Upper endoscopy
  • X-rays

The treatment for abdominal pain depends on its cause and may include:

  • Medications to lower inflammation, prevent acid reflux, or treat ulcers or infection
  • Surgery to treat a problem with an organ

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen can irritate your stomach and worsen your pain. Don’t take them unless a doctor has diagnosed the cause of your belly pain and recommends their use.

Some diet and lifestyle changes may help ease belly pain caused by gas and indigestion. Here are some things you can try:

  • Eat smaller portions at more frequent meals.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Chew your food well.
  • Drink beverages at room temperature.
  • Avoid foods that give you gas or indigestion.
  • Manage your stress.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Sit up straight after you eat.
  • Get regular physical activity and take a short walk after you eat.

Abdominal pain can develop for many different reasons. Most of the time, it’s not serious and will go away on its own. But persistent, severe, and unexplained abdominal pain could be a cause for concern and require treatment. Our best advice — let your doctor decide.

What does the location of your abdominal pain tell you?

Where your pain occurs provides clues to its cause. For example, your appendix is in your lower right abdomen, so pain in that area could indicate you have appendicitis, a medical emergency requiring surgery.

What is the difference between stomach pain and abdominal pain?

Your stomach is just one organ in your abdomen. It’s located in your upper abdomen on the left-hand side. While you can feel pain in your stomach, abdominal pain can occur anywhere in your abdomen, the area of your body between your chest and your pelvis.