A stomachache that comes and goes, but never goes away for good, can truly be a pain. If you have at least three of them over 3 months, and they’re severe enough to keep you from doing everyday activities, you have what doctors call “recurrent abdominal pain” (RAP). The treatment you need will depend on the cause of your pain.
What causes RAP?
Adults and children can have RAP for many reasons, including some health problems. For children, they might include:
- Trouble digesting the sugar in milk products, called lactose intolerance
- Urinary tract infection
- Abdominal migraines (stomach pain that comes back a lot without a known cause)
Health issues that can cause RAP in adults include:
- Period pain
- Stomach ulcers
- Urinary tract infection
- Liver or gallbladder problems
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Infection from a parasite
Still, many adults and kids have RAP that’s not caused by any clear medical problem. Then, it’s called functional abdominal pain. Doctors don’t know what causes it, but things like stress, personality, and genes may play a role. Another idea is that the nerves in the digestive tract are more sensitive than they are for most people.
RAP 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.
How is RAP diagnosed?
When you or your child sees the doctor about RAP, she’ll ask about symptoms and family history. She’ll want to know when the pain starts and what seems to make it feel worse or better. Then, she’ll do a thorough physical exam.
She’ll probably take samples of blood and urine to do some tests. She also can order a scan to look inside your body for a problem, such as a CT scan, MRI, or an ultrasound. If you’re over age 50, you may get a colonoscopy, which is when a doctor uses a thin, flexible tool with a camera to look for problems inside your colon and rectum.
The results of these tests will help your doctor decide what kind of treatment will help you or your child the most. If a specific health issue is making your stomach hurt, you’ll need to get treatment for that problem. Your doctor could also suggest lifestyle changes like eating different foods or finding ways to manage stress. Often, a mix of different things helps.
If your belly pain keeps coming back for 6 months and your doctor can’t find a medical reason why, you may have functional abdominal pain.
When should I call a doctor?
Let your doctor know right away if you or your child has:
- Severe pain
- Blood in your stool, vomit, or pee
- Trouble swallowing
- Nausea that doesn’t go away
- Yellow-looking skin
- Swelling in your stomach
- A belly that’s tender to the touch
- Weight loss
For children, you should also call the doctor for:
- Lots of vomiting
- Severe diarrhea that doesn’t go away
- Pain on the right side of the belly
Your doctor will also want to know if your child isn’t growing like she should, or if you have a family history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).