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Abdominal Pain Learning Center

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Abdominal Pain

What Is Abdominal Pain?

Abdominal pain is pain that occurs between the chest and pelvic regions. Abdominal pain can be cramp-like, achy, dull, or sharp.

Organs in the abdomen are:

  • intestines
  • kidneys
  • appendix
  • spleen
  • stomach
  • gallbladder
  • liver
  • pancreas

Inflammation or diseases that affect these organs can cause pain in the abdomen. Viral or bacterial infections that affect the stomach and intestines may also cause significant abdominal pain. Abdominal pain is sometimes referred to as a stomachache.

What Causes Abdominal Pain?

Abdominal pain can be caused by many conditions. However, the main causes are infection, abnormal growths, inflammation, and intestinal disorders.

Infections in the throat, intestines, and blood can cause bacteria to enter your digestive tract, resulting in abdominal pain. These infections may also cause changes in digestion, such as diarrhea or constipation.

In women, cramps associated with menstruation are also a common source of lower abdominal pain.

Other common causes of abdominal pain include:

  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • gastroenteritis (the flu)
  • acid reflux (when stomach contents leak backward into the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms)
  • vomiting
  • kidney infection
  • stress

Diseases that affect the digestive system can also cause chronic abdominal pain. The most common are:

  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • gastroenteritis (the flu)
  • irritable bowel syndrome (a disorder of unknown origin causing abdominal pain, cramping, and changes in bowel movements)
  • Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel disease)
  • lactose intolerance (the inability to digest lactose—the sugar found in milk and milk products)

Causes of severe abdominal pain include:

  • organ rupture (such as a burst appendix)
  • gallbladder stones
  • kidney stones
  • kidney infection

Location of Pain Within the Abdomen

The location of the pain within the abdomen may be a clue as to its cause.

Pain that is generalized throughout the abdomen (not in one specific area) may indicate:

  • appendicitis (inflammation of the appendix)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • injury
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • urinary tract infection
  • the flu

Pain that is focused in the lower abdomen may indicate:

  • appendicitis
  • intestinal obstruction
  • ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy that occurs outside the womb)

In women, pain in the reproductive organs of the lower abdomen can be caused by:

  • severe menstrual pain, or dysmenorrhea
  • ovarian cysts
  • miscarriage
  • fibroids
  • endometriosis
  • pelvic inflammatory disease
  • ectopic pregnancy

Upper abdominal pain may be caused by:

  • gallstones
  • heart attack
  • hepatitis (liver inflammation)
  • pneumonia

Pain in the center of the abdomen might be from:

  • appendicitis
  • injury
  • uremia (buildup of waste products in your blood)

Lower left abdominal pain may be caused by:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • cancer
  • kidney infection
  • ovarian cysts
  • appendicitis

Upper left abdominal pain is sometimes caused by:

  • enlarged spleen
  • fecal impaction (hardened stool that can’t be eliminated)
  • injury
  • kidney infection
  • heart attack
  • cancer

Causes of lower right abdominal pain include:

  • appendicitis
  • hernia (when an organ protrudes through a weak spot in the abdominal muscles)
  • kidney infection
  • cancer
  • flu

Upper right abdominal pain may be from:

  • hepatitis
  • injury
  • pneumonia
  • appendicitis

Types of Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain can be described as localized, cramp-like, or colicky.

Localized pain is limited to one area of the abdomen. This type of pain is often caused by problems in a particular organ. The most common cause of localized pain is stomach ulcers (open sores on the inner lining of the stomach).

Cramp-like pain may be associated with diarrhea, constipation, bloating, or flatulence. In women, it can be associated with menstruation, miscarriage, or complications in the female reproductive organs. This pain comes and goes, and may completely subside on its own without treatment.

Colicky pain is a symptom of more severe conditions, such as gallstones or kidney stones. This pain occurs suddenly and may feel like a severe muscle spasm.

When to See the Doctor

Mild abdominal pain may go away without treatment. However, in some cases, abdominal pain may warrant a trip to the doctor.

Call 911 if your abdominal pain is severe and associated with

  • trauma (as from an accident or injury)
  • pressure or pain in your chest

Seek immediate medical care if

  • pain is so severe that you can’t sit still or need to curl into a ball to get comfortable
  • you also have bloody stools, persistent nausea or vomiting, yellowing of the skin or eyes, swelling or severe tenderness of the abdomen, or difficulty breathing

Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain that lasts longer than 24 hours
  • prolonged constipation
  • vomiting
  • a burning sensation when you urinate
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should call the doctor if abdominal pain occurs at any time.

How Is the Cause of Abdominal Pain Diagnosed?

The cause of abdominal pain can be diagnosed through a series of tests. Before ordering tests, your doctor will do a physical examination. This includes gently pressing down on various areas of your abdomen to check for tenderness and swelling. This information, combined with the severity of the pain and its location within the abdomen, will help your doctor determine which tests to order.

Imaging tests, such as MRI scans, ultrasounds, and X-rays are used to view organs, tissues, and other structures in the abdomen in detail. These tests can help diagnose tumors, fractures, ruptures, and inflammation.

A colonoscopy is used to look inside the colon and intestines. A small tube housing a fiber optic camera is inserted into the colon and through the intestines. The camera allows the doctor to see intricate details of the colon’s structure. This test is often used to detect blockages, inflammation, and abnormal growths in the colon and intestines.

An endoscopy is used to detect inflammation and abnormalities in the esophagus and stomach. For this procedure, a small tube is fed down your throat and into the esophagus. A tiny microscope is threaded through the tube, allowing the doctor to view the inside of the esophagus and stomach.

An upper GI is a special X-ray test that uses contrast dye to check for the presence of growths, ulcers, inflammation, blockages, and other abnormalities in the stomach. For this procedure, you will drink a solution that contains contrast dye. After ingesting the solution, you will be given an abdominal X-ray.

Blood, urine, and stool samples may also be collected to look for evidence of bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections.

How Can I Prevent Abdominal Pain?

Not all forms of abdominal pain are preventable. However, you can minimize the risk of developing abdominal pain by doing the following:

  • Consume a healthy diet.
  • Drink water frequently.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat smaller meals.

If you have an intestinal disorder, such as Crohn’s disease, follow the diet given to you by your doctor to minimize discomfort. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, do not eat just before bedtime. Lying down too soon after eating may cause heartburn and abdominal pain. Try waiting at least two hours after eating before lying down.

Content licensed from:

Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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