Fitness facts: Abdominal pain
By Connie Colbert
GCU Director of Health Services
We all get stomach aches (abdominal pain) at times. But when should we be worried?
Many times, stomach pains are harmless conditions caused by overeating, gas or indigestion. Frequent or recurring sharp stomach pain often can be due to stress and worry, even in children. But a stomachache also can point to more serious medical problems like appendicitis, pancreatic disease or bowel blockage.
It is important to pay attention to when the pain occurs, what makes it better or worse and provide that information to your healthcare provider.
As a rule of thumb, abdominal pain that is harmless usually improves or goes away within an hour or two.
Common examples are:
- Gas: Formed in the stomach and intestines as your body breaks down food, this can cause general stomach pain and cramps. This often can be indicated by belching or flatulence.
- Bloating: Related to gas, this occurs when excessive gas builds up in your digestive tract. Your stomach will usually feel full, and you may experience cramps.
- Constipation: This occurs when you are having difficulty making bowel movements. If you are having two or fewer bowel movements a week, constipation is the likely cause. In addition to feeling bloated and nauseous, you may experience cramping and pain in your rectum.
- Indigestion: You typically experience this as an upset stomach, burning or belly pain after eating. It is often accompanied by heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux.
- Gastroenteritis or the” stomach flu”: Your stomach may hurt before each episode of vomiting or diarrhea. It can be severe but usually comes and goes with the symptoms of the illness.
If the pain gets worse or becomes constant for a prolonged period, this may indicate a more serious problem. Or if it is accompanied by other symptoms, such as high fever, pain in your chest, difficulty breathing, or your stomach is hard, stiff or tender to touch.
Common examples of more serious causes:
- Appendicitis: This happens when the appendix, which is part of the large intestine, becomes infected and inflamed. If the appendix ruptures, it can become life-threatening. Surgery to remove the appendix, an appendectomy, is the usual treatment.
- Ulcers: Large open sores in the lining of the stomach and small intestine. These can bleed or burst and be life-threatening if not treated. Medication to reduce your stomach acid can help treat them
- Gallstones: Hard stones made up of cholesterol and other materials that form in the gallbladder, which is just below the liver. They can cause inflammation of the gallbladder, which can lead to inflammation – known as cholecystitis. Treatment for these problems includes removal of the gallbladder.
- Kidney stones: Crystals of varying sizes that form in your urine and build up in your kidneys. The pain can be severe. You can pass some on your own through urination, or doctors may remove them surgically.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: Ongoing inflammation of all or part of the digestive tract, causing pain and often weight loss, diarrhea and rectal bleeding. Examples include Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
- Pancreatitis: The pancreas produces insulin and glucagon – the two hormones that manage how your body processes sugar – and aids in digestion. Inflammation of the pancreas is called pancreatitis, which can affect its performance and cause severe stomach pain.
- Diverticulitis: An inflammation or infection in one or more small pouches in the digestive tract.
The location of your pain may point the healthcare provider to the cause of the abdominal pain. See below for the location of pain and what types of conditions are a concern in those areas.
- Upper right: Gallstones, cholecystitis, stomach ulcer, duodenal ulcer, hepatitis
- Upper center: Heartburn/indigestion, hiatal hernia, epigastric hernia, stomach ulcer, duodenal ulcer, hepatitis
- Upper left: Functional dyspepsia, stomach ulcer, gastritis, pancreatitis
- Middle right: Kidney stones, kidney infection, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation
- Middle center: Umbilical hernia, appendicitis, stomach ulcer, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis
- Middle left: Kidney stones, kidney infection, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation
- Lower right: Appendicitis, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, pelvic pain
- Lower center: Bladder infection, prostatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, inguinal hernia, pelvic pain
- Lower left: Constipation, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, pelvic pain, inguinal hernia
When to seek medical help immediately:
- Severe pain that has other symptoms, such as fever, diarrhea, vomiting or difficulty breathing
- You have abdominal pain that is very sharp, severe and sudden.
- You also have pain in your neck, or shoulder.
- You are vomiting blood, have bloody diarrhea, or have black, tarry stools (melena).
- You have a high fever.
- You are having difficulty breathing.
- You develop consistent nausea and/or vomiting.
- Your abdomen is stiff, hard, and tender to the touch.
- You cannot move your bowels, especially if you are also vomiting
Any type of abdominal pain that is unusual for you or continues to linger, do not wait it out! Contact your healthcare professional for an appointment.