If you’ve ever had a sudden, uncontrolled, tight feeling in the muscles of your stomach, then you’ve probably had stomach cramps. They’re uncomfortable and sometimes hurt. Anyone can get them.
Stomach cramps: A nonmedical term most often used to describe pain in the mid- or upper abdominal area. Abdominal pain (pain in the belly) can come from conditions affecting a variety of organs and does not necessarily arise from the stomach even though an individual may perceive that pain is originating in the stomach. Various organs can be the source of pain in the upper abdomen, including the small intestine, colon, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.
Stomach spasms are contractions of your abdominal muscles (abs), stomach, or intestines. Depending on which part of your body is spasming and how badly, it might feel like either a slight muscle twitch or stomach cramps.
Occasionally, pain may be felt in the abdomen even though it is arising from organs that are close to, but not within, the abdominal cavity, such as conditions involving the lower lungs, kidneys, uterus, or ovaries. These causes can include pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis, and pregnancy-related complications.
In most cases, stomach spasms themselves are harmless, but they could be a symptom of an underlying condition. Read on to learn more about potential causes of stomach spasms and when to call your doctor.
What Causes Stomach Cramps?
This happens when you eat food contaminated with certain germs. Stomach cramps can be one of the symptoms. In addition to the cramps, you may have:
- Upset stomach
It may take minutes, hours, or days for symptoms to appear.
Older adults, children younger than 5, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get food poisoning. Most people get better without seeing a doctor.
In the meantime, rest and avoid the food that might have made you sick.
If you’re throwing up or have diarrhea, experts say to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. See a doctor if your symptoms get more serious, including:
- Blood in your poop
- A high fever (temperature over 102 F)
- Throwing up many times, which can lead to dehydration
- Signs of dehydration (peeing less, dizziness, very dry mouth and throat)
- Diarrhea that lasts more than a few days
Also call the doctor for diarrhea in a child under 6 months old or for an elderly adult with chronic medical problems or a weakened immune system.
You may hear your doctor call this viral gastroenteritis. People also call it stomach flu, but it’s not caused by the flu virus.
There are different types of stomach viruses. Norovirus is the most common in the United States.
Since a stomach virus and food poisoning have similar symptoms, like cramps, it’s easy to confuse the two. You get a stomach virus through close contact with someone who has the virus, such as sharing food or kitchen utensils, like a fork or knife. You can also get the virus by eating or drinking unsafe food and water. Unlike food poisoning, the virus can spread easily to other people — at least for the first few days you have it.
These happen when your body’s immune system defends itself against a food it has mistaken as harmful.
The most common food allergies are to proteins like:
If you’re allergic to certain foods, it’s best to avoid them. A dangerous allergic reaction called anaphylaxis can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, trouble swallowing, and shortness of breath. If not treated immediately, it can be fatal.
Overworking your abdominal muscles could cause them to spasm. Spasms due to muscle strain are most likely to occur in people who do strenuous and frequent exercise, especially crunches and situps.
Other symptoms of muscle strain are:
- tenderness or pain in your abs
- pain that gets worse with movement
- Stomach cramps
- Bloating in the upper abdomen
- Feeling uncomfortably full
- Excessive gas
Symptoms of food sensitivity occur after you eat a food that your body cannot handle well. Foods and drinks that are more likely to irritate the stomach include greasy and sugary foods, carbonated and caffeinated drinks, and alcohol.
Some people are sensitive to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat.
Sometimes you may not be able to tolerate a particular food at all. In this case, you have a “food intolerance.” The most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance. People with lactose intolerance are unable to fully digest lactose, which is a form of sugar found in most dairy products.
Symptoms associated with food sensitivities usually go away on their own with time or can be managed with over-the-counter medication (such as antacids). If you’re not sure what food is irritating your stomach, keeping a food diary can help you identify the culprit.
This is either when food irritates your digestive system or your body has trouble breaking it down. Lactose — a sugar found in milk and other dairy foods — is the most common food intolerance. Symptoms may only crop up when you eat a large amount of the problem food or eat it often.
Take an antacid to treat other symptoms of food intolerance like heartburn or stomachache.
Losing electrolytes from dehydration caused by sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea can result in muscle spasms throughout your body, including your stomach. This happens because muscles need electrolytes such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium to work properly. When they don’t have these electrolytes, your muscles may start working abnormally and seizing up. Learn more about identifying and treating an electrolyte imbalance.
Other symptoms of dehydration include:
- extreme thirst
- dark yellow urine
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Stomach cramps more than once a week, often related to bowel movements.
- Stool becomes frequent (more than 3 times a day) or less frequent (fewer than every 3 days).
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, chronic disorder of the gut (primarily the large intestine) that causes abdominal pain and changes in your bowel movements.
IBS is a chronic disease, meaning that symptoms last for months or years (although the symptoms usually come and go over time).
Your doctor will discuss your diet to see if any foods or drinks trigger your symptoms that you should avoid. They may recommend fiber supplements, regular exercise such as walking or yoga, and ways to manage life stressors (including getting enough sleep).
If these do not control your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medication.
Options include anti-spasmodics (for belly pain and cramps), probiotics, antibiotics, or even antidepressants to treat anxiety or depression.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
These diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC), are chronic inflammatory conditions. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, while UC only affects the colon. In both conditions, inflammation can cause bowel spasms.
Other symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases are:
- weight loss
- abdominal cramps and pain
- night sweats
- feeling like you urgently need to go to the bathroom
- Cramps in the lower abdomen
Menstrual cramps are very common. These occur in the uterus, which is located in the lower abdomen. They develop when the uterus contracts to shed its lining. Typically, cramps start up to 2 days before your period begins and last for 1 to 3 days beyond that. Some women also have an upset stomach during their period.
Menstrual cramps are treated with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Naproxen. You can also ease your symptoms by exercising and resting a heating pad on your lower abdomen.
In some cases, menstrual cramps may be a sign of a more serious problem, such as endometriosis or fibroids. If your menstrual cramps are so severe that they interfere with your everyday functioning or if they occur regularly (not just when you have your period), see your doctor.
Gastritis And Gastroenteritis
Gastritis and gastroenteritis are both stomach inflammation, but in gastroenteritis, the intestines are also inflamed. Infections, such as from Helicobacter pylori, Norwalk virus, and rotavirus, usually cause these conditions.
Other symptoms of gastritis and gastroenteritis include:
- nausea and vomiting
- diarrhea (gastroenteritis only)
- stomach pain
- Stomach cramps
- A feeling of fullness in your abdomen
- Hardened, pellet-like stool that’s difficult to pass
- Having fewer than 3 bowel movements a week
Everyone has, some point, been constipated. Constipation is when stool becomes hard, making it difficult to have a bowel movement.
You can become constipated for many reasons. You may not be eating enough fiber or drinking enough water. Not exercising and stopping yourself from having bowel movements can also cause constipation.
You may need to eat more fiber-rich foods (such as fruit and vegetables), drink more water, start exercising regularly. Creating a “bowel schedule”—a time each day when you try to have a bowel movement—can also help. You can also relieve constipation with over-the-counter medications such as stool softeners and laxatives.
See your doctor if constipation lasts for more than a couple of weeks and doesn’t improve with at-home treatments. Sometimes, constipation is a sign of a more serious condition, such as colon cancer, so don’t ignore it.
- Stomach cramps
Pregnancy cramps are often described as pulling sensations on one or both sides of the abdomen. These cramps are from the uterus expanding to make room for the growing fetus.
In most cases, mild cramps early in pregnancy that come and go are common and not a cause for concern.
In the second trimester, you may experience round ligament pain. The round ligament supports your uterus. When it stretches during pregnancy, it can cause cramps. These cramps may be sharp and stabbing or feel like a dull ache in the lower abdomen.
In the third trimester, women will often experience Braxton Hicks contractions towards the end of pregnancy. These are like a false alarm for true labor.
You can treat pregnancy cramps by changing positions (standing up, sitting down, lying down, or even just moving around to see which position is most comfortable for you). Soaking in a warm bath (below 100°F) and drinking plenty of water may also help.
Sometimes pregnancy cramps can be a sign of a serious problem. Call your doctor if you have severe cramps or abdominal pain, cramps that don’t go away, vaginal bleeding, or labor pain (contractions).
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