Abdominal pain is one of the most common discomforts and frequent reasons for visits to the doctor and to Doctor Google. The majority of the time, abdominal pain and stomach aches are caused by indigestion, which will resolve with time, hydration, and rest. However, there are some conditions that require medical attention. Monitoring your symptoms and learning more about them can help you distinguish abdominal pain that’s commonplace and non-concerning, from abdominal pain that requires medical intervention.
What Is Abdominal Pain?
The abdomen, which extends from the chest to the pelvis, houses a wide variety of organs. It contains those related to digestion – stomach, intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, reproduction – ovaries and uterus, and other vital organs – appendix, kidneys, and more.
In general, pain in the upper left quadrant pertains to the stomach, spleen, or intestines, and is often digestion-related. Pain in the lower left quadrant can relate to the small intestine and colon. Pain in the lower right quadrant can signal appendix distress, while the upper right quadrant can pertain to the pancreas, gallbladder, or liver.
What Causes Abdominal Pain? / Common Conditions
In order of most common to least common, here are some causes of abdominal pain.
Very often, stomach pain is caused by digestive distress, or dyspepsia. This can result from eating food the body can’t digest, eating too much, eating too quickly, or eating food that has gone bad. Greasy and spicy foods, as well as caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated beverages can also cause indigestion. Symptoms of digestive distress are likely familiar to all of us – gas, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.
When digestion works as it should, food is primarily digested in the small intestine. But when the body can’t digest a certain food either because of a food sensitivity, allergy, or overeating, food ferments in the colon, and gas, a byproduct of fermentation, can build up, causing sharp pains and bloating. Gas can also accumulate in the gut if one swallows air while eating or chewing gum. Gas and bloating due to indigestion is usually felt in the upper abdomen soon after eating. Pain decreases when gas is expelled—through belching or flatulence—but sometimes it needs a little help getting out. Home remedies that might help relieve gas pains include ginger or peppermint tea, walking, and gentle twisting motions of the abdomen.
Indigestion can also cause constipation, diarrhea, and nausea or vomiting. To prevent stomach aches due to digestive distress, try eating more frequent, smaller meals with less fat, and spice. If constipated, include more fibrous foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet, and make sure you’re drinking plenty of water.
Acid Reflux / Ulcers
Acid reflux is described as a burning pain, felt in the lower chest or upper abdominal area. It can also feel like pains around the heart, which leads it its colloquial name, heartburn. When you eat, acid breaks down your food for digestion. There is a muscular valve between the stomach and the esophagus to prevent acid from flowing up instead of down, but if the valve fails to close all the way, or opens when it shouldn’t, acid can move into the esophagus, which, unlike the stomach, lacks a protective lining. This causes the burning sensation, as the lining of the esophagus is made sore from acid. In addition, acid reflux can cause bloating, burping, nausea, and sore throat and coughing.
To prevent acid reflux, avoid lying down right after a meal or eating a heavy meal close to bedtime. It’s also best to avoid drinking excessive caffeine, alcohol, or carbonated beverages, eating spicy or greasy foods, and smoking. Losing weight if you’re overweight can also help.
If acid reflux is persistent, it’s deemed Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Over time, in addition to the acid reflux symptoms, untreated GERD can lead to an inflamed esophagus and ulcers. A peptic ulcer is a wound or hole in the stomach lining. Ulcers can cause abdominal pain that worsens after a meal or on an empty stomach. Ulcers can also lead to bloating, indigestion, and weight loss. Treatment for acid reflux, GERD, and ulcers, in addition to the aforementioned lifestyle changes, are medicines like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), histamine receptor blockers, and antacids, many of which are available both over-the-counter and by prescription.
Viral Gastroenteritis, also known as stomach flu, causes abdominal cramping, often accompanied by loose, watery diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes a fever. It is contracted through eating or drinking contaminated food or water, or through contact with an infected person. Healthy adults usually recover with rest and hydration, but older adults, infants, and those with compromised immune systems should seek medical attention for viral gastroenteritis, as medications, IV fluids, and closer monitoring could be necessary.
Painful menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea, can feel like cramping of the lower abdomen, with pain in the low back pain and rectum as well. The hormone prostaglandin is the culprit here. It causes the uterus to contract so it can expel its contents, but prostaglandins can also irritate the stomach and rectum, causing them to contract or spasm as well, which can cause pain, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. Mild cramping pain can be treated with over-the-counter medicine like Ibuprofen or Midol, and home remedies hot showers and baths, or placing heating pads on the abdomen and lower back.
If the stomach pain is debilitating or causes vomiting, it can be useful to be evaluated by an OBGYN. Several conditions like uterine cysts, fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or endometriosis could be the cause of excessive menstrual pain, and can be corrected through medicine or surgery.
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and Bladder Infections
Urinary tract and bladder infections cause pain, pressure, and bloating in the lower abdomen. They are also often accompanied by frequent and painful urination, and a feeling of needing to urinate when the bladder is empty. UTIs are most frequently caused by E.coli, a bacteria naturally present in the digestive tract, infecting the urethra and bladder.
To reduce your risk of developing at UTI, drink plenty of liquids, especially water and unsweetened cranberry juice. For women, UTI incidence can be reduced by wiping from front to back, urinating within twenty minutes of vaginal intercourse, and avoiding the use of douches, deodorant sprays, and scented powders.
If you develop a UTI, visit K or your doctor for diagnosis. A short course of antibiotics can usually clear up a UTI quickly and effectively, and there are various over-the-counter pain relief medications available as well. It’s important not to leave a UTI untreated, as the infection can spread to the kidneys, leading to more serious and long-term consequences.
Gallbladder Pain and Gallstones
The gallbladder sits beneath the liver in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen. Its function is to store and release bile, which helps to digest fats. Most pain caused by the gallbladder is felt in the upper right abdomen, and it often occurs after eating a fatty meal. Pain can be intermittent or constant, and can range from mild to severe.
Most gallbladder pain is caused by gallstones, hardened cholesterol from the bile, that range in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters. If gallstones obstruct a duct leading from the gallbladder to the liver or intestines, it can trigger cholecystitis, inflammation of the gallbladder. Cholecystitis is felt as severe steady pain in the upper-right abdomen that can radiate to the right shoulder or back. It can be tender when pressed, and can cause sweating, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and bloating. To prevent gallstones try eating a low-fat diet with plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole-grains. A low-fat, high-fiber diet can help keep cholesterol in the bile from solidifying. If you suspect your abdominal pain is due to gallbladder infection or gallstones, visit K or see your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment.
Kidney stones are hard deposits of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys. They can form when urine becomes concentrated due to dehydration, allowing minerals to crystallize and stick together. Kidney stones themselves can be asymptomatic, they only cause pain once they move within the kidney or pass into the ureter, which connects the kidney and bladder. Pain associated with kidney stones is felt below the ribs, in the back or side, or in the lower abdomen and groin. It can also come in waves and shift locations, and cause painful urination, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills, pink, red or brown urine, or urine that smells or looks cloudy.
To avoid developing kidney stones, make sure to drink plenty of water, eat a low-sodium diet, and keep your body mass index (BMI) below the range of obesity. You might be at an increased risk of developing kidney stones if someone in your family has had them, or if you have inflammatory bowel disease. You can pass kidney stones without medical intervention, sometimes pain relief is all that’s needed. If you suspect you have kidney stones, confirm the diagnosis with a medical professional to receive treatment appropriate for you.
The appendix is a small narrow tube-like organ located between the small and large intestines, which for most people lies in the lower right-hand abdominal quadrant. Appendicitis, inflammation of the appendix, often begins as a dull pain near the belly-button, gradually intensifying and moving to the lower right side, which can grow painful or tender when touched. Other symptoms of appendicitis include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fever, constipation, and inability to pass gas. The causes of appendicitis are mostly unknown, but some doctors believe it can develop as a result of blockages from traumatic injury or a buildup of hardened stool. Appendicitis must be treated to prevent the appendix from bursting. If it does burst, it can lead to peritonitis, when bacteria from the appendix spill into the abdominal cavity. This is a serious medical emergency requiring surgery.
Learn more about appendicitis.
Diverticulitis refers to inflammation of the diverticula, small pouches along the intestines. Pain is felt in the lower left abdomen, along with fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, cramping, and constipation. This condition is uncommon and requires medical attention for management and to prevent escalation of infection. Risk factors for diverticulitis include obesity, smoking, aging, lack of exercise, and a diet low in fiber and high in animal fats.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD refers to various autoimmune disorders in which your body’s immune system attacks the gut. The most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease, characterized by inflammation of the digestive tract lining, and Ulcerative colitis, which causes inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the colon and rectum. Both conditions cause severe stomach pain, felt anywhere, usually accompanied by diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, bloating, fatigue, and weight loss.
Related Symptoms to Watch For
There are so many causes of abdominal pain, and it can be confusing to discern when to try a home remedy and when to seek medical treatment.
If you experience any of the following, seek medical attention right away:
- Abdominal pain accompanied by unexplained weight loss
- Abdominal Pain accompanied by unexplained exhaustion
- Abdominal Pain accompanied by inability to urinate
- Abdominal Pain accompanied by fainting or loss of consciousness
- Sudden, severe pain, especially if accompanied by a fever over 102°F or if it worsens with touch
- Bloody or black stool
- Bloody vomit
- Pain in the chest that radiates from ribs into the abdomen
How K Health Can Help
Find out what’s causing your abdominal pain. Did you know you can get free personalized healthcare in the K Health app? Download K, then check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and chat with a doctor for free. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.