Symptoms A-Z

What You Should Know About Abdominal Pain and Stomach Aches

Stomach pain, or abdominal pain can be irritating and may feel like cramping, however the condition is usually a sign of a common illness or infection. Causes for dull or sharp pain in the abdomen include a viral infection, indigestion, a stomach ulcer, IBS, or food poisoning. Read below for more cause and treatment options for stomach ache relief.

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Does Your Stomach Ache? Abdominal Pain Symptoms Explained

Abdominal pain can strike with little warning and result in significant discomfort. It's likely you're more worried about finding relief than you are about determining the exact cause.

In some cases, the best treatment for abdominal pain is time. In other cases, immediate medical attention is necessary. You should find some comfort in knowing that abdominal pain symptoms are common. Most abdominal pain symptoms are temporary and only last a few hours. These symptoms are typically related to improper food consumption — like eating too many hot dogs in one sitting — and indigestion [1].

Common characteristics of stomach pain

Abdominal pains can feel like cramps in the belly region. Sometimes the abdominal pain is mild and barely noticeable. Other times, it can be so intense that you may be unable to go about your normal activities. It's likely that your abdominal pain can be described by:

Location of abdominal pain

To better understand your abdominal pain symptoms, keep track of its starting position and whether or not it moves. For example, lower abdominal pain may indicate appendicitis [2] or an obstruction. Generalized discomfort could be a symptom of the flu or an injury while upper pain could indicate gallstones [3], or in rare cases, a heart attack.

Once you're able to describe your abdominal pain, it's time to move onto the possible causes and start narrowing down your options for care.

What Causes Your Stomach to Ache?

To learn more about what may be causing your abdominal pain, read the following sections.

Infection-related abdominal pain causes

There are two main types of viral infections, the norovirus [4] and the rotavirus [5]. Both can cause diarrhea, cramps, and nausea from gastroenteritis.

Dietary abdominal pain causes

Dietary habits can result in abdominal pain, such as the following.

  • Indigestion: This is the number one culprit of abdominal pain. Bad eating habits and unhealthy lifestyles can upset your digestive system. This will result in discomfort in the stomach and possibly the chest [6]. Indigestion is also a symptom of many gastrointestinal diseases such as ulcers, Crohn's disease, and acid reflux.
  • Drinking habits: Water is always the best choice for proper hydration. However, it's likely you mix in a few other beverages throughout the day. Drinking too much coffee, soda or carbonated beverages, or alcohol  — especially on an empty stomach — can result in abdominal pain.

Other abdominal pain causes

Abdominal pain can also occur due to the following.

  • Bowel issues: Both diarrhea and constipation can cause abdominal pain symptoms. If your bowel movements are less than normal, you can expect some form of abdominal pain.
  • Stress: Many diseases can come from mental and physical distress. Anxiety and panic disorders are connected to abdominal pain as well [7].
  • Internal injuries: Internal bleeding, stomach ulcers [8], and tearing in any of the stomach muscles, lining, or nearby organs can cause severe abdominal pain that should be treated as soon as possible.

10 Possible Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache) Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced abdominal pain (stomach ache). This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Viral (norovirus) infection

If you ever heard of an entire cruise ship of people coming down with the same “stomach bug,” chances are that was norovirus. Fortunately, norovirus usually goes away on its own after a few days, but is pretty unpleasant and can spread extremely easily. The ...

Indigestion (dyspepsia)

Indigestion, also called upset stomach, dyspepsia, or functional dyspepsia, is not a disease but a collection of very common symptoms. Note: Heartburn is a separate condition.

Common causes are eating too much or too rapidly; greasy or spicy foods; overdoing caffeine, alcohol, or carbonated beverages; smoking; and anxiety. Some antibiotics, pain relievers, and vitamin/mineral supplements can cause indigestion.

The most common symptoms are pain, discomfort, and bloating in the upper abdomen soon after eating.

Indigestion that lasts longer than two weeks, and does not respond to simple treatment, may indicate a more serious condition. Upper abdominal pain that radiates to the jaw, neck, or arm is a medical emergency.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. If the symptoms began suddenly, laboratory tests on blood, breath, and stool may be ordered. Upper endoscopy or abdominal x-ray may be done.

For functional dyspepsia – "ordinary" indigestion – treatment and prevention are the same. Eating five or six smaller meals per day with lighter, simpler food; managing stress; and finding alternatives for some medications will provide relief.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: nausea, stomach bloating, dyspeptic symptoms, bloating after meals, vomiting

Symptoms that always occur with indigestion (dyspepsia): dyspeptic symptoms

Symptoms that never occur with indigestion (dyspepsia): vomiting (old) blood or passing tarry stools, rectal bleeding, bloody diarrhea, fever

Urgency: Self-treatment

Stomach ulcer

A peptic ulcer is a sore in the lining of the stomach or the first part of your small intestine (the duodenum), which causes pain following meals or on an empty stomach.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, moderate abdominal pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps)

Symptoms that never occur with stomach ulcer: pain in the lower left abdomen

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Gallstones

Gallstones are small, round deposits found in the gallbladder, the organ where bile is stored. Gallstones can be subclassified a number of ways. Oftentimes, gallstones will be referred to as either cholesterol stones or pigment stones depending on the makeup of the gallstone.

Gallstones can also be class...

Irritable bowel syndrome (ibs)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder of the large intestine. It is characterized by recurrent abdominal pain and bowel movement issues that can be difficult to treat. Signs and symptoms of IBS are usually not severe or life-threateni...

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Menstrual cramps

Menstrual cramps, also called dysmenorrhea, are actually contractions of the uterus as it expels its lining during a woman's monthly period.

A certain amount of mild cramping is normal, triggered by hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. However, painful cramps may be caused by underlying conditions such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, high prostaglandin levels, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID.)

Severe cramping may be present, as well as nausea, headache, and dull pain that radiates to the low back and thighs. It is most common in women under age 30 who smoke, have heavy and irregular periods, and have never given birth.

An obstetrician/gynecologist (women's specialist) can do tests for underlying conditions such as those mentioned above. Women over age 25 who suddenly begin having severe cramps should see a doctor to rule out the sudden onset of a more serious concern.

Treatment of mild cramping can be done with heating pads to the abdomen and with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen. Birth control pills, which regulate the menstrual cycle, are often effective in lessening cramps.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, lower back pain, abdominal pain that shoots to the back

Symptoms that always occur with menstrual cramps: abdominal pain (stomach ache)

Symptoms that never occur with menstrual cramps: being severely ill, disapearance of periods for over a year

Urgency: Self-treatment

Normal variation of constipation

Constipation means bowel movements which have become infrequent and/or hardened and difficult to pass.

There is wide variation in what is thought "normal" when it comes to frequency of bowel movements. Anywhere from three times a day to three times a week is considered normal.

As long as stools are easy to pass, laxatives should not be used in an effort to force the body to a more frequent schedule.

Constipation is usually caused by lack of fiber in the diet; not drinking enough water; insufficient exercise; and often suppressing the urge to have a bowel movement.

A number of medications and remedies, especially narcotic pain relievers, can cause constipation.

Women are often affected, due to pregnancy and other hormonal changes. Young children who demand low-fiber or "junk food" diets are also susceptible.

Constipation is a condition, not a disease, and most of the time is easily corrected. If simple adjustments in diet, exercise, and bowel habits don't help, a doctor can be consulted to rule out a more serious cause.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, stomach bloating, constipation, constipation

Symptoms that always occur with normal variation of constipation: constipation

Symptoms that never occur with normal variation of constipation: vomiting

Urgency: Self-treatment

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, which creates and releases insulin and glucagon to keep the sugar levels in your blood stable. It also creates the enzymes that digest your food in the small intestine. When these enzymes accidentally get activated in the pancreas, they digest the pancreas itself, causing pain and inflammation.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, being severely ill, severe abdominal pain, fever

Symptoms that always occur with acute pancreatitis: constant abdominal pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Appendicitis

Appendicitis refers to inflammation of the appendix, a small finger-like structure in the lower right corner of the belly. Appendicitis is extremely common, occurring in about five to 10 percent of people at some point in their lifetime. While it can occur at any age, the most commonly affected group...

Intestinal inflammation (diverticulitis)

Diverticula are small pouches that bulge outward through the colon, or large intestine. Diverticulitis is a condition where the pouches become inflamed or infected, a process which can cause fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, cramping, and constipation.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, constipation

Symptoms that never occur with intestinal inflammation (diverticulitis): pain below the ribs, pain in the upper right abdomen

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

How to Find Relief From Stomach Pains

When abdominal pain is an emergency

Since there are many causes for abdominal pain, you may be uncertain when to seek treatment. If any of the following symptoms are present, seek emergency medical attention immediately.

  • Fever
  • Bloody stools
  • Yellow skin
  • Tenderness in the abdomen area: Especially if it worsens with very light palpation (pressing on the abdomen)
  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Associated lightheadedness or dizziness: This suggests severe dehydration [9].
  • Absence of bowel movements in the past few days
  • Steroid use: Taking steroids such as prednisone may mask some symptoms [10].

At-home treatments for abdominal pain

If your abdominal pain is mild or tolerable, here are some remedies you can try at home.

  • Heating pad: Grab a heating pad and apply to your belly area [11].
  • Chamomile or peppermint tea: Both are known to help soothe digestive pain or upset [12].
  • Fiber: Eat foods that are fibrous in nature to improve digestion and help relieve constipation.
  • Medications: Keep medications such as antacids nearby. For diarrhea, grab a banana. If that is not enough, medicines that contain loperamide will help [13]. For constipation, consider a stool softener or a laxative.

When to see a doctor for abdominal pain

You should consult your physician for abdominal pain that worsens, persists, or keeps coming back. Together, you and your doctor can make sense of your symptoms and provide the best options for care.

FAQs About Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)

Here are some frequently asked questions about abdominal pain (stomach ache).

Why does my stomach hurt?

Your stomach may hurt for a variety of reasons. Indigestion due to a large meal, a lack of food, or gas are the most common reasons. The most common pathologic reasons is a "stomach bug" or an infection of the stomach that usually resolves in seven to 10 days. If your stomach pain does not resolve, you should visit a healthcare provider for an evaluation.

Why does the top of my stomach hurt?

The top of your stomach may hurt because of heartburn or reflux of stomach acid into the bottom portion of the esophagus. The stomach is divided into different regions. The top of the stomach is called the "cardia" and this region connects to the esophagus, the tube that food travels through. The cardia can cause pain when stomach acid splashes up through the opening between the esophagus and stomach and burns the lower end of the esophagus.

What causes sharp pain in the stomach?

Sharp pain in the stomach can be caused by indigestion, stomach or intestinal infection, ulcer, or a stomach tumor. Indigestion and stomach infections usually self-resolve and are much more common. Many sharp stomach pains are benign, and if they happen infrequently, they can be ignored. "Infrequently" is considered not frequently enough to be remembered. Additionally, sharp pains may also come from intense muscle contractions associated with vomiting. However, in this case, it is best to treat the cause of vomiting as the sharp pains will diminish as vomiting stops.

What causes pain in the lower abdomen?

Pain in the lower abdomen can be caused by problems with the descending colon, rectum, or genitalia. To determine the cause of pain in the lower abdomen, it is important to recall what activities have occurred recently. Have you been constipated? Have you had trouble urinating? Have you been sick in any way recently? Have you eaten anything unusual or taken any prescribed or illicit drugs recently? Pain in the lower abdomen is commonly caused by stretching or tension placed on organs. Whether muscle contractions during an upset stomach, stretching of bowel from constipation, or an overfull bladder pressing on other organs, lower abdominal pain is commonly caused by stretching of an organ irritating a nerve. The other common cause of lower abdominal pain is inflammation which can occur in the setting of infection or, more rarely, malignancy.

Why does my stomach hurt after I eat?

Your stomach may hurt after you eat if you haven't eaten in a long time, if you've eaten a particularly large meal, or if you have an ulcer, tumor, or other mass that is not protected from stomach acid by mucus within the stomach. Stomach pain after eating is most commonly caused by the normal contractions/motions of the stomach as it churns and breaks down food with stomach acid. If you have damage to the stomach or a mass of some sort, these motions can aggravate that point of tenderness causing additional stomach pain. Gas is also a common cause of stomach pain after eating. An antacid or fizzy drink may help you belch, releasing the gas and discomfort.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • How would you describe the nature of your abdominal pain?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your abdominal pain (stomach ache)

Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache) Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced abdominal pain (stomach ache) have also experienced:

  • 11% Nausea
  • 8% Diarrhea
  • 4% Stomach Bloating

People who have experienced abdominal pain (stomach ache) were most often matched with:

  • 66% Stomach Ulcer
  • 16% Viral (Norovirus) Infection
  • 16% Indigestion (Dyspepsia)

People who have experienced abdominal pain (stomach ache) had symptoms persist for:

  • 41% Less than a day
  • 34% Less than a week
  • 11% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache) Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your abdominal pain (stomach ache)

References

  1. Symptoms & Causes of Indigestion. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Published Nov, 2016. NIH Link
  2. Appendicitis. National Library of Medicine: MedLinePlus. Published December 6, 2017. MedLinePlus Link
  3. Cooney J. Gallstones: What Are They? How Are They Treated? American Academy of Family Physicians: American Family Physician. Published March 15, 2000. AFP Link
  4. Norovirus. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Published July, 2018. CDC link
  5. Rotavirus Infections. National Library of Medicine: MedLinePlus. MedLinePlus Link
  6. Does Heartburn Feel Like a Heart Attack? Harvard Health Publishing. Published Oct, 2017. Harvard Health Publishing
  7. Stress and the Sensitive Gut. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Published August 2010. Harvard Health Link
  8. Symptoms & Causes of Peptic Ulcers (Stomach Ulcers). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Published November 2014. NIDDK Link
  9. Kaneshiro NK, Zieve D, Conaway B, eds. Dehydration. National Library of Medicine: MedLinePlus. Published September 5, 2017. MedLinePlus Link.
  10. Prednisone. RxList. Published April 25, 2018. RxList Link
  11. Live Science Staff. Study: How Heating Pads Relieve Internal Pain. Live Science. Published July 5, 2006. Live Science Link
  12. Onderko P. Stomach Soothers. Reader's Digest. Reader's Digest Link
  13. Imodium. RxList. Published October 18, 2016. RxList Link

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.