Abdominal Pain

Overview

What is abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain is discomfort anywhere in your belly — from ribs to pelvis. It’s often called ‘stomach’ pain or a ‘stomach’ ache, although the pain can be coming from any number of internal organs besides your stomach.

A brief episode of pain is called acute, which means 'of recent onset.' When you have abdominal pain for three months or longer, it’s considered a chronic or ongoing problem, although this time period is not exact. For example, acute appendicitis is nearly always an acute condition, in contrast to irritable bowel syndrome, which may result in chronic cramping that can span years or longer.

Abdominal pain comes in many forms, and may range from cramps that come and go to sudden, stabbing pains to constant, dull abdominal aching. Even mild pain can be an early sign of a serious condition, which is why healthcare providers often monitor these patients for changes in their conditions.

Keep in mind that abdominal pain is a subjective symptom that cannot be reliably measured by healthcare professionals. The intensity of the pain is what you say that it is.

When you have abdominal pain, you may have other symptoms such as fever, vomiting or diarrhea. Providers will question you carefully if your pain is localized or present throughout the abdomen. They will ask what makes the pain more intense and what seems to calm it down. Is the pain changed by eating or changing position? Does it awaken you from sleep? Does it migrate to another part of the body? Your answers can offer important diagnostic clues.

How common are stomachaches?

Just about everybody will experience abdominal pain at one point or another. Most causes of abdominal pain are not serious and resolve spontaneously. A healthcare provider can usually readily diagnose and treat these conditions. However, abdominal pain can also be a sign of a serious illness, or even an emergency. Abdominal pain is responsible for some 5% of emergency room visits.

Possible Causes

Why does my stomach hurt?

There are numerous reasons for abdominal pain. It can come from any of the organs in your belly — gallbladder, pancreas, liver, stomach and intestines — or the abdominal wall – the outer shell of the body. Sometimes you feel the pain in your belly, but it’s actually coming from the chest, back or pelvis.

Abdominal wall pain is common and easy to miss as healthcare professionals may direct their attention to internal organs as a cause of the pain. Once the abdominal wall is considered as a suspect, it is generally easy to nail down this diagnosis. If a patient strains the ab wall muscles from exertion, he may tell his doctor that he has right sided stomach pain. Clearly, this pain is not caused by a diseased internal organ such as the gallbladder or the stomach.

Healthcare providers can often determine where pain is coming from by taking a detailed history from you. Depending upon the physician’s style, you may be simply asked to relate your medical story in your own words as a narrative. Other physicians may prefer to ask a series of detailed questions. Others may utilize both techniques. This medical history is paramount, even more important than the physical examination. After the history and physical, certain diagnostic tests may be advised to make an accurate diagnosis.

What are the most common causes of abdominal pain?

Because the abdomen is home to multiple organs, a wide range of problems might cause pain. The discomfort can also originate from nearby areas like the chest and pelvis. Causes of abdominal pain include:

Digestive issues

Abdominal problems

Pelvic problems

Chest problems

How is stomach pain in children different?

Up to 15% of children between 5 and 16 years have ongoing or on-again, off-again abdominal pain. Oftentimes, when children get a tummy ache, it’s from constipation. Other common causes of abdominal pain in children include:

Care and Treatment

How is abdominal pain treated?

Treating abdominal pain depends on its cause. Options include:

  • Medications for inflammation, gastroesophageal reflux disease or ulcers.
  • Antibiotics for infection.
  • Changes in personal behavior for abdominal pain caused by certain foods or beverages.
  • Local or spinal injections of numbing agents or corticosteroids by pain management physicians.

In more severe cases like appendicitis and hernia, surgery is necessary.

When to Call the Doctor

Which symptoms of abdominal pain are cause for concern?

If your abdominal pain is severe or if it is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Nausea, fever, or the inability to keep food down for several days.
  • Bloody stools.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Vomiting blood.
  • The pain occurs during pregnancy.
  • The abdomen is tender to the touch.
  • Pain is the result of an injury to the abdomen in the previous days.
  • Pain lasts for several days.

These symptoms may be an indication of an internal inflammation, infection, or bleeding that requires treatment as soon as possible. Less commonly, some of these symptoms may be caused by colorectal, ovarian or an abdominal cancer.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/14/2020.

References

  • American College of Gastroenterology. Abdominal Pain Syndrome. (http://patients.gi.org/topics/abdominal-pain/) Accessed 4/7/2016.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Traveler’s Diarrhea. (http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/travelers-diarrhea) Accessed 4/7/2016.
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Evaluation of Acute Abdominal Pain in Adults. (http://www.aafp.org/afp/2008/0401/p971.html) Accessed 4/7/2016.

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