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What causes stomach pain?

What causes stomach pain?

Navin Khosla NowPatientGreen tick
Updated on 20 May 2024

Stomach pain is pain that you may feel in the belly region, anywhere between your chest and your groin. Stomach pain is also referred to as abdominal pain. Abdominal pain is a common and often confusing experience, that can range from mild discomfort to severe agony. It can originate from various sources within the abdomen, making it challenging to pinpoint the underlying cause. Understanding the cause and recognizing the signs of abdominal pain is crucial for ensuring prompt and appropriate treatment. Let’s take a closer look at abdominal pain, its causes, potential triggers, and what to do to find relief.

Defining abdominal pain

Abdominal pain is a broad term that covers any discomfort felt in the region between the chest and the pelvis. This area often called the belly or stomach is where organs, including the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, small and large intestines, and various other structures live. Abdominal pain can present in several ways, varying in intensity, duration, and location within the abdomen.

Understanding the areas of the abdomen

To better understand the potential causes of abdominal pain, healthcare providers often divide the abdomen into four areas: The upper right, upper left, lower right, and lower left. By locating the specific region where the pain is experienced, healthcare providers have a better idea about the underlying condition.

  • Upper right area: This area is associated with issues related to the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts, as well as the first part of the small intestine (duodenum) and the right kidney
  • Upper left area: This area covers the stomach, pancreas, and left kidney, as well as the spleen and the left lung
  • Lower right area: The appendix, the first part of the large intestine (cecum), and the right ovary (in women) are located in this region
  • Lower left area: This area is primarily associated with the lower part of the large intestine (colon), the left ovary (in women), and the left ureter

The most common causes of abdominal pain

Abdominal pain can have a wide range of underlying causes, ranging from minor digestive issues to more serious medical conditions. Some of the most common possible causes of abdominal pain include:

Digestive disorders

  • Indigestion: Uncomfortable feelings in the upper abdomen, often accompanied by bloating, belching, or heartburn, can be caused by indigestion or acid reflux
  • Bloating: Excess gas buildup in the digestive system can lead to abdominal discomfort and a feeling of fullness
  • Constipation: Difficulty passing stools or a feeling of incomplete bowel movements can result in abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Diarrhea: Frequent, watery bowel movements can cause cramps and discomfort in the lower abdomen
  • Food allergies and intolerances: Sensitivity to certain foods, such as lactose or gluten, can trigger abdominal pain, bloating, and other digestive symptoms
  • Food poisoning: Consuming contaminated food or beverages can lead to abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Viral gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu): Viral infections of the digestive tract can cause inflammation and irritation, leading to abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea
  • Peptic ulcer disease: Sores or lesions in the lining of the stomach or small intestine can cause a burning or gnawing sensation in the upper abdomen
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Frequent backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus can lead to a burning sensation in the upper abdomen
  • Urinary Tract Infection (UTI): An infection in the urinary system can sometimes cause referred pain in the lower abdomen

Female reproductive cycle

  • Menstrual cramps: Uterine contractions during the menstrual cycle can cause cramping and discomfort in the lower abdomen
  • Ovulation pain: Some women experience a brief, mild pain or discomfort in the lower abdomen around the time of ovulation

More serious causes

While the majority of abdominal pain cases are not life-threatening, some more serious medical conditions can also present with abdominal discomfort. These include:

  • Liver disease
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Bile duct issues
  • Kidney infections
  • Pancreatitis
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Referred pain from the chest
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Colon cancer
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Endometriosis
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Ovarian or uterine cancer

Diagnosing abdominal pain

When a patient presents with abdominal pain, healthcare providers typically follow a process approach to determine the underlying cause. This process often involves:

Medical history and physical examination

  • The healthcare provider will ask detailed questions about the patient’s symptoms, including the location, duration, and severity of the pain, as well as any associated symptoms
  • They will also ask about the patient’s medical history, any recent injuries or illnesses, and any medications they are taking
  • A thorough physical examination, including touching the abdomen, can provide valuable clues about the source of the pain

Diagnostic tests

Depending on the suspected cause of the abdominal pain, the healthcare provider may order one or more of the following diagnostic tests:

  • Blood, urine, and stool tests: These can help identify infections, inflammation, or other underlying conditions
  • Imaging scans: Techniques such as X-rays, CT scans, MRI, or ultrasound can provide detailed images of the abdominal organs and structures
  • Endoscopic procedures: Tools like upper endoscopy (examining the esophagus, stomach, and upper small intestine) or colonoscopy (examining the colon) can help identify issues within the digestive tract

By combining the patient’s medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic test results, the healthcare provider can often identify the underlying cause of the abdominal pain and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Treating abdominal pain

The treatment for abdominal pain will depend on the underlying cause. In many cases, the pain may be temporary and can be managed with self-care measures. However, in more serious cases, medical intervention may be necessary.

Self-care strategies

For mild, temporary abdominal pain, the following self-care measures may provide relief:

Medical treatment

For severe abdominal pain, or if the underlying cause is suspected to be a serious medical condition, healthcare providers may recommend the following treatments:

  • Prescription medications: Depending on the diagnosis, the healthcare provider may prescribe medications to address the underlying cause, such as antibiotics for infections, acid-reducing drugs for ulcers, or anti-inflammatory medications for conditions like pancreatitis
  • Surgical interventions: In some cases, surgical treatment may be necessary, such as the removal of the gallbladder for gallbladder disease or the appendix for appendicitis
  • Dietary modifications: For certain conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel diseases, a specialized diet may be recommended to manage symptoms and promote healing
  • Lifestyle changes: Addressing underlying factors, such as stress or physical activity levels, may be part of the treatment plan for some types of abdominal pain

It’s important to work closely with a healthcare provider to ensure the most appropriate and effective treatment for the specific cause of the abdominal pain.

Seek medical attention

While many cases of abdominal pain are not serious and can be managed with self-care, there are certain situations where it’s crucial to seek medical attention promptly. Individuals should seek immediate medical care if they experience:

  • Severe, sudden, or persistent abdominal pain
  • Abdominal pain accompanied by fever, persistent vomiting, or blood in the stool or vomit
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to the chest, back, or groin
  • Abdominal pain that is accompanied by difficulty breathing or other concerning symptoms
  • Abdominal pain in individuals with a history of cancer, recent abdominal surgery, or other underlying medical conditions

Additionally, individuals should consult a healthcare provider if the abdominal pain persists for more than 24-48 hours, worsens over time, or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss, persistent bloating, or changes in bowel habits.

Prompt medical attention can help identify the underlying cause of the abdominal pain and ensure appropriate treatment, potentially preventing the development of more serious complications.

Conclusion

Abdominal pain is a common symptom that can have a wide range of underlying causes, from minor digestive issues to more serious medical conditions. By understanding the potential causes, recognizing the signs that require medical attention, and working closely with healthcare providers, individuals can take steps to address abdominal pain and find relief.

Sources

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