March 06, 2021
Whether from indulging at the office potluck, daring to try those famous five-alarm hot wings, or coming down with a bug that’s going around, at some point we all deal with the pain of stomach ache. Occasional digestive troubles are pretty common and are usually no cause for alarm since symptoms tend to resolve themselves fairly quickly.
But how do you know if you have a harmless stomach ache or are dealing with abdominal pain that may be serious enough to see a doctor?
What do we mean, abdominal pain?
Just to be clear, when we talk about stomach or belly pain, we’re referring to an area of the body that’s extensive and complex. The abdomen is home to your digestive system and includes these hard-working organs:
- Small intestine
- Large intestine
Abdominal pain is pain that’s occurring anywhere between your ribs and your pelvis. But pain may also be in your abdominal wall—the skin and muscle makeup housing your abdomen. In the human body, one thing leads to another, and everything is interconnected, so that gut pain you may be feeling could actually be originating somewhere else, like your chest, pelvis, or back.
This too shall pass: When stomach pain is not an emergency
While stomach aches can certainly be uncomfortable and upsetting, they’re generally not cause for major concern. Common causes of abdominal or belly pain may include a variety of non-emergency health conditions.
Digestive issues that cause abdominal pain:
- Food allergies or lactose intolerance
- Food poisoning
Inflammation that causes abdominal pain
Irritation or infection in your organs can cause temporary inflammation and lead to abdominal pain. Specifically, this can happen in cases of:
- Viral gastroenteritis—commonly called the stomach flu
- Peptic ulcer disease (ulcers)—sores on the inside lining of the stomach
- Chronic acid reflux (GERD)
- Urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Pancreatitis—swelling or infection of the pancreas
Abdominal pain in women
Females of reproductive age may also experience abdominal pain (from mild to severe) stemming from conditions like:
- Menstrual cramps
- Painful ovulation
- Pelvic inflammatory disease—infection of a woman's reproductive organs
- Endometriosis—when tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus
- Ruptured ovarian cyst
- Tubal (ectopic) pregnancy—when a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus
How to ease mild stomach pain
Abdominal pain can vary so much. Maybe you’re nauseous or feel like you have a “sour” stomach or that your belly is churning or tied up in knots. So, how can you relieve the pain in your stomach?
- Try sipping water or other clear fluids (you may also be able to tolerate sports drinks in small amounts)
- Avoid solid foods for the first few hours
If you’ve also been vomiting…
- Wait about six hours once the vomiting has stopped, then eat small amounts of mild foods like bananas, rice, applesauce, dry toast, or soda crackers.
If your pain is high in your abdomen and occurs after eating…
- Try antacids. They may help, especially with heartburn or indigestion symptoms.
- Avoid dairy, citrus, high-fat foods, fried or greasy foods, tomato-based products, caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated drinks.
- Don’t take any medicine for abdominal pain without asking your doctor.
When is stomach pain serious?
In serious cases, stomach pain can get worse or become constant. The cause of pain could be the result of an issue or health conditions that call for immediate medical attention.
Rather than waiting out abdominal pain or trying to self-medicate, when in doubt, have it checked out. Abdominal pain can be linked to a wide range of health conditions, some more serious than others.
Various causes of abdominal pain may include but are not limited to:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Bowel blockage/obstruction
- Stomach or colon cancer
- Cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation) with or without gallstones
- Ischemic colitis (decreased blood supply to the intestines)
- Diverticulitis (inflammation/infection of the colon)
- Kidney stones
Rest assured, at GuideWell Emergency Doctors, our Board-Certified Emergency Medicine Doctors are here to help you feel better as soon as possible. That includes getting to the bottom of your abdominal pain.
Time to get checked out? Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to see a doctor when:
- Abdominal pain lasts a week or longer
- Abdominal pain doesn’t improve in 24–48 hours
- Bloating lasts more than two days
- Diarrhea lasts more than five days
- You’ve had a poor appetite for quite some time
- You’ve had an unexplained weight loss
Seek immediate medical attention for abdominal pain if:
- You’re having difficulty breathing
- You’re experiencing very sharp, sudden, and severe pain in the chest, neck, or shoulder
- You have a fever over 101°F
- Your belly is swollen or tender to the touch
- You’re both vomiting and constipated (or if your vomiting won’t quit)
- You notice blood in your stool and/or urine
What’s more, you should take abdominal pain seriously if:
- You are or could be pregnant
- You’re being treated for cancer
- You had a recent injury to your abdomen
Discuss abdominal pain with your doctor
If you do need to seek medical attention, being able to describe your abdominal pain in detail may help a doctor narrow down the cause. Bottom line, they’d like to know where it hurts and how it feels.
Areas of the abdomen
In evaluating abdominal pain, doctors can take a “divide and conquer” approach by looking at the abdomen as four parts:
- Right upper quadrant
- Left upper quadrant
- Right lower quadrant
- Left lower quadrant
Location can be an important clue to diagnosing abdominal pain. For example, pain in the upper right quadrant could in some cases indicate an issue with the liver or gallbladder while pain in the lower left quadrant could be linked to kidney stones. You may not be a doctor, but you do know your body.
Pointing out where you’re experiencing abdominal pain or discomfort may help point your doctor in the right direction.
Types of abdominal pain
Just as important as the location of the pain is the description of the pain. Abdominal pain can be felt in many different ways. It could be:
- Mild or severe pain
- Dull or sharp pain
- A burning or achy belly pain
- Stomach cramps or gas pressure
- Constant pain
- Intermittent pain that comes and goes
- Localized (in one spot) pain or generalized (all over) pain
Targeting abdominal pain: the more details, the better
Be prepared to provide a doctor with as much information as possible, since there could be so many contributing factors to your abdominal pain. Questions you could be asked that may greatly help in your health assessment include:
- What medications/vitamins/supplements are you taking?
- How long have you been in pain?
- Have you recently made major changes to your diet?
- Do you have regular bowel movements?
- Have you noticed changes in your urine?
- When does the pain get better or worse… When you eat? When you lie down?
Testing for causes of abdominal pain
Just as talking about abdominal pain may help lead to answers, tests may also be required, depending on your doctor’s assessment and recommendations. The range of diagnostic testing for abdominal pain may include:
- Urine, blood, and stool tests*
- X-rays of the abdomen*
- CT scan of the abdomen*
- Ultrasound of the abdomen*
- ECG (electrocardiogram) or heart tracing*
- Barium enema
- Upper endoscopy
- Upper GI (gastrointestinal) and small bowel series
- Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy
The topic of abdominal pain is a lot to swallow, we know. Try not to worry. Most belly aches and abdominal issues are temporary inconveniences caused by something as simple as an upsetting meal, common cold, new medication, or lifestyle change. But there’s always the exception.
Armed with information, you’ll know better when to take it easy or when to take action. If you are having abdominal symptoms or pain, GuideWell Emergency Doctors can help diagnose and treat the cause of your symptoms. If you need immediate medical attention, call 911.
*These tests can be performed at any GuideWell Emergency Doctors’ location.