Most people experience abdominal discomfort or pain at some point in their lives. Abdominal pain (sometimes called stomachache or bellyache) is usually felt in the part of the trunk below the ribs, above the pelvis and the groin. It can range in intensity from a mild ache to severe, disabling pain.
While abdominal pain isn’t normal, it isn’t necessarily serious, and it often resolves itself.
Signs and Symptoms of Abdominal Pain
Abdominal pain may take several different forms. In addition to how severe it is, abdominal pain can be described in the following ways:
Generalized Pain This refers to pain felt in more than half of your abdominal area, and is typical of stomach viruses, indigestion, or gas as the cause of your pain.
Cramping This type of pain come and goes, or changes in its severity or perceived position in your abdomen. Cramping is rarely serious and is typical of gas, passing a stool, or menstruation as the cause of your pain.
It’s important to call your doctor if your abdominal pain is so severe that you can’t move without feeling more pain, or sit still in a comfortable position.
- Bloody stool
- Nausea and vomiting that doesn’t resolve
- Weight loss
- Yellowish skin
- Abdomen very tender to touch
- Swollen abdomen
Causes and Risk Factors of Abdominal Pain
While we don’t usually feel the inner workings of our abdomen, pain can occur when there is a disruption of the normal functioning of an organ or area of tissue inside.
Abdominal pain can be caused by inflammation (as in?appendicitis,?diverticulitis, or colitis), organ distention or stretching (as in an intestinal obstruction or blockage of a bile duct by?gallstones), or loss of blood supply (as in ischemic colitis).
Some prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as dietary supplements, can cause stomach pain. Medications can do this by irritating the stomach, leading to nausea, pain, and diarrhea, or by slowing digestion, leading to constipation. Be sure to check the label of any drug you take to see if abdominal pain is listed as a possible side effect.
- Aortic aneurysm rupture
- Stomach or intestinal perforation
- Torsion of an ovary or testicle (when the ovary or testicle twists on the tissues that support them)
- Stomach virus
- Menstrual cramps
- Food poisoning
- Fecal impaction
- Lactose intolerance
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Kidney stones
- Intestinal obstruction
- Crohn's disease?or?ulcerative colitis
- Urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Cancer (pancreatic, stomach, or liver)
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Celiac disease
- Strained or pulled abdominal muscle
How Is Abdominal Pain Diagnosed?
The cause of abdominal pain is diagnosed based on your symptom history, a physical examination, and testing, if needed. Your doctor is likely to ask you questions about the characteristics of your pain, and whether you have any underlying physical or mental health conditions that could be contributing to your abdominal pain.
Questions from your doctor may address the following aspects of your abdominal pain:
- Where it’s located
- How intense it is
- Whether it’s dull, stabbing, burning, or cramping
- Whether it comes and goes
- When you experience or notice it most
- Whether it radiates outward to other areas of your body
- How long you’ve had it
- Whether any activities or actions seem to make it worse or better
Your doctor may also ask about your overall health history, any recent injuries, and whether you might be pregnant.
- Blood, urine, or stool tests
- X-ray of the abdomen
- Ultrasound of the abdomen
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen
- Barium enema (colon X-ray)
- Endoscopic procedures (inserting a tube with a tiny camera through your mouth or rectum to view areas inside your digestive tract)
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
Prognosis of Abdominal Pain
How long your abdominal pain lasts, and whether it gets better or worse, will depend on the cause of your pain and how the pain responds to any treatments.
Duration of Abdominal Pain
Abdominal pain can be brief or long-lasting, depending on its underlying cause. It can be ongoing or recurring, coming and going at what seem like random intervals or with certain activities or behaviors.
How long your abdominal pain lasts, or whether it comes and goes, doesn’t necessarily correspond to how severe the underlying condition is.
Treatment and Medication Options for Abdominal Pain
Mild abdominal pain due to digestive upset may respond to short-term self-care measures such as the following:
- Avoiding solid foods for a few hours
- Sipping water or clear fluids
- Resting until you feel better
- Avoiding dairy products, citrus fruits, fatty foods, tomato products, caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated beverages
- Sticking to mild foods, like crackers, rice, bananas, or applesauce
- Drugs to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Antibiotics to treat infection
- Drugs to reduce inflammation
- Targeted treatments for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Procedures and Surgery
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
- Relaxation training
Prevention of Abdominal Pain
In many cases, abdominal pain can be prevented by adopting lifestyle and dietary choices that address the cause of your pain. Constipation, digestive upset, and even abdominal injury can often be prevented.
The following steps may help you prevent abdominal pain:
Develop regular bowel habits. Many people can train themselves to have regular bowel movements to help avoid constipation.
Follow a balanced, fiber-filled diet. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich foods, like whole grains, can help support healthy digestion and reduce constipation.
Eat regularly and slowly. Eating moderately-sized meals, instead of waiting until you’re very hungry and stuffing yourself, can help avoid pain from overeating or eating on an empty stomach.
Exercise regularly.?Getting enough physical activity can help prevent constipation and strengthen your abdominal muscles, which may help prevent straining.
Complications of Abdominal Pain
In addition, many of the underlying conditions that cause abdominal pain can lead to serious complications, including the possibility of structural damage to the digestive system from infection, cancer and its treatments, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
To reduce the risk of complications, it’s important to seek medical attention for your abdominal pain if it’s sudden and severe, or if it includes symptoms like fever, bloody stool, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, or visible swelling.
Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Abdominal Pain?
It’s harder to determine how many people experience chronic abdominal pain, since it can be caused by a variety of health conditions and doesn’t always come with a clear diagnosis.
Related Conditions of Abdominal Pain
Some of the most common conditions associated with abdominal pain include the following:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) This condition is characterized by symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.
Constipation If you aren’t having regular bowel movements, you may feel bloated and full and experience sharp gas pains in your abdomen.
Peptic Ulcer When a sore develops in the lining of your stomach or upper small intestine, you may experience a burning sensation similar to hunger pangs, along with nausea, vomiting, or heartburn.
Pancreatitis Inflammation of your pancreas may cause sharp, severe pain in the upper middle area of your abdomen, along with nausea, vomiting, or fever. This condition can be either acute or chronic.
Resources We Love
The following organizations offer information and support for people with abdominal pain and related disorders:
This leading organization of gastroenterologists provides information on many conditions that can cause abdominal pain, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), colorectal cancer, as well as general information on abdominal pain.
This organization of doctors and scientists who work in the field of gastroenterology has helpful pages on its website about conditions including constipation, diverticulitis, and indigestion, including information in Spanish on some topics.
This group aims to support and advocate for people who experience chronic pain, and has information on coping with numerous pain-causing conditions including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and autoimmune atrophic gastritis.
Additional reporting by Quinn Phillips.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Abdominal Pain. Mayo Clinic. April 25, 2019.
- Abdominal Pain, Age 12 and Older. Kaiser Permanente. February 26, 2020.
- Abdominal Pain. Mount Sinai. December 2020.
- Why Does My Stomach Hurt? Johns Hopkins Medicine. December 2020.
- Abdominal Pain in Children. American Academy of Pediatrics. November 21, 2015.
- Abdominal Pain. Cleveland Clinic. March 20, 2016.
- Alternative Medicine — Pain Relief. MedlinePlus. September 16, 2019.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Mayo Clinic. October 15, 2020.
- IBS FAQs. American College of Gastroenterology. December 2020.
- Roque MV, Bouras EP. Epidemiology and Management of Chronic Constipation in Elderly Patients. Clinical Interventions in Aging. June 2, 2015.
- The Gut-Brain Connection. Harvard Health Publishing. January 21, 2020.