What Is Abdominal Pain?
Abdominal pain is 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. Sometimes, though, it can be a sign of a serious illness that needs medical attention.
Types of Abdominal Pain
There are several types of abdominal pain, based on how quickly your pain starts and how long it lasts:
- Acute pain starts over a few hours or days and may come with other symptoms.
- Chronic pain lasts longer – from weeks to months or more – and may come and go.
- Progressive pain gets worse over time and often comes with other symptoms.
Abdominal Pain Causes
Whether you've got a mild ache or serious cramps, abdominal pain can have many causes. For instance, you might have indigestion, constipation, a stomach virus, or menstrual cramps.
Other causes include:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Food allergies
- Kidney stones
- A urinary tract infection
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm (swelling in the belly’s main artery)
- Bowel blockage or obstruction
- Cancer of the stomach, pancreas, liver, bile duct, gallbladder, or immune cells
- Ovarian cancer or cysts
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder)
- Low blood flow to your intestines caused by a blocked blood vessel
- Ectopic pregnancy (when a fertilized eggs grows outside the uterus, for example, in a fallopian tube)
Recurrent Abdominal Pain
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 it could be ongoing. Some people describe it as a dull ache in their belly. Others have sharp cramps. Besides pain, there may be symptoms like diarrhea or throwing up.
When to Call the Doctor About Abdominal Pain
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 symptoms along with the pain, such as:
- Can't keep food down for more than 2 days
- Signs you're getting dehydrated, including not urinating frequently, dark-colored urine, and being very thirsty
- Can't 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 be a sign of a problem inside your body that needs treatment as soon as possible. Get medical care right away if you have abdominal pain and you also:
- Vomit blood
- Notice bloody or black, tarry bowel movements
- Have trouble breathing
- Vomit constantly
- Have swelling in your belly
- Have yellow skin
- Are pregnant
- Have unexplained weight loss
Abdominal Pain Diagnosis
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
- Upper endoscopy
Abdominal Pain Treatment and Home Remedies
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 like 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.