Overview of abdominal pain
Abdominal pain refers to any pain or discomfort in your belly area, or between your lower chest and groin. This can be discomfort that you feel throughout your belly, or pain felt in a small and localized area. The severity of abdominal pain can range from mildly uncomfortable to severe.
Abdominal pain is very common and is usually not serious, but can indicate an emergency condition in some cases.
Your doctors at Dignity Health are here to help. If you have concerns about abdominal pain that won’t go away, find a doctor today.
Abdominal pain severity does not always coincide with how serious the condition is. There are ways that you may describe your pain, which can help your doctor narrow down the cause. Pain can be:
- This pain is usually not serious, and likely stems from gas or bloating. It may be followed by diarrhea. Crampy pain becomes worrisome if it lasts over 24 hours or is accompanied by a fever or other symptoms.
- Pain that starts and ends suddenly in severe waves is called colicky pain. Possible causes of colicky abdominal pain include kidney stones or gallstones.
- This pain is experienced in over half of your belly region and is typical of a stomach virus, gas, or indigestion.
- If your pain can be pinpointed to only one area of your belly, it is more likely that there is a problem with an organ, such as the appendix.
Abdominal pain can be acute, meaning it comes on suddenly, or chronic, meaning it occurs over weeks or even years. This pain can be a severe and life-threatening symptom of a condition. Seek immediate emergency care or call 911 for severe abdominal pain paired with:
- Abdominal swelling and tenderness
- Bloody, tarry, or black stools
- Bloody urine
- Chest, neck, or shoulder pain
- Dizziness or breathing problems
- High fever
- Persistent nausea and vomiting
- Throbbing mass in the belly
- Vomiting blood or a black material that looks like coffee grounds
- Yellow skin or eyes
When severe abdominal pain is paired with these symptoms, it is often indicative of a much more serious condition, and you will want to seek medical attention right away. For all other pain, you may wait a few days to contact your doctor and see if you can find ways to ease it while you wait for your appointment.
There are so many possible causes of abdominal pain that it can be challenging to know where to start. Begin by taking note of your symptoms: did the pain come on quickly or over a few days? How has the pain changed over time?
The most common causes of abdominal pain are gas pains, indigestion, and a pulled muscle. These are usually not serious. While many cases of abdominal pain are caused by problems with the digestive tract, pain can also be due to infections, urinary tract issues, female reproductive system problems, medication side effects, and stress.
Some of the most common causes of abdominal pain include:
- Food sensitivities or allergies
- Food poisoning
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
- Liver disease
- Meckel’s diverticulum (a congenital disability that causes problems later in life)
- Stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis)
- GI cancers
Female reproductive system-related causes
- Menstrual cramps
- Ovarian cyst
- Reproductive system cancers
- Sexually transmitted diseases
Urinary tract-related causes
- Kidney disease
- Urinary tract infection
Because there are so many different potential causes of abdominal pain, it is crucial to recognize what type of pain you are experiencing. This will help your doctor to diagnose your condition.
Abdominal pain can be described as acute, chronic, or progressive. Each of these categories of pain has various associated causes:
- Acute pain develops within a few hours or days. It also often resolves over a few hours or days. Appendicitis is an example of acute abdominal pain, as it generally begins suddenly on the right side of the abdomen. Gas pain may also come on quickly, but is generalized throughout your abdomen, instead of severe in one area, and will pass on its own. Gas pain additionally is associated with a crampy, knotted, or bloated feeling in your abdomen.
- Chronic pain can come and go for weeks to years. Symptoms may not get worse over time but can range from mild to severe. As with acute pain, many different conditions cause chronic abdominal pain, including digestive disorders such as Celiac disease or reproductive conditions like endometriosis. The source of chronic abdominal pain is often difficult to diagnose.
- Progressive pain is pain that gets worse over time. Generally, other symptoms will develop over this time, as well. Causes of progressive pain tend to be much more severe and include several different types of cancers, Crohn’s disease, and others.
Because there are such a wide variety of types of abdominal pain, it can be difficult to prevent. There are, however, lifestyle steps that you can take:
- Eat small meals more frequently instead of large meals
- Make sure meals are well-balanced and high in fiber
- Include fruits and vegetables in your diet
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise often
- Reduce intake of foods that produce gas
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.