Stomach pain is not all that uncommon. In most cases, it is clearly related to something you either ate (such as with food poisoning), caught (like the stomach flu), or experience routinely (such as gastritis). At other times, it can seem as though it appears out of the blue or after taking medication. If this happens and the symptoms are either severe, persistent, or worsening, you need to see a doctor to investigate the cause.
Several different adjectives may be used to describe stomach pain—burning, stabbing, aching, and so on—and the discomfort is sometimes associated with other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and excessive gas. This information can be helpful to your doctor when they’re working to make a diagnosis.
Sometimes the digestive tract does not function properly due to an abnormality with the structure of an organ. Medical imaging will show that the organ does not look normal and is not working properly.
Functional problems, also called motility disorders, are conditions that result from poor nerve and muscle function in the digestive tract. Organs that are part of the gastrointestinal tract will usually look normal on medical images, such as CT scans or MRI scans , but the organs do not work like they should.
A stomach ache is a term used to describe cramps or a dull ache in the abdomen. Usually, a stomach ache is short-lived and not a cause for concern. Stomach pain that is severe is more likely to be cause for concern, especially if it occurs unexpectedly and suddenly, in which case it should be treated as a medical emergency.
Stomach pain can be very disconcerting, and the invention of the internet certainly hasn’t helped. In only a few clicks, even the most innocuous Google search will inevitably lead you to the conclusion that death is imminent!
But the truth is, pain or discomfort in your tummy can be down to several factors. And it might not even be your stomach causing the problem. Your torso is home to lots of key organs, like the liver, pancreas, gall bladder and intestines, that are located very close to one another. Your pain could be linked to a problem with one of these.
Reasons for Stomach Pain
The stomach, of course, is its own unique organ. But when people use the term “stomach pain,” many mean pain related to the gastrointestinal tract. As such, we also do so here.
Typically speaking, perceived stomach pain that occurs in the part of the abdomen nearer to the ribs involves the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, and small intestines. Pain occurring in the lower abdomen tends to be related to the lower GI tract, which is comprised of the large intestine (colon), rectum, and anus.
Upper Gastrointestinal Tract
Besides your run-of-the-mill stomach bug or the occasional bout of indigestion, here are some health conditions that cause more persistent stomach pain in the upper gastrointestinal tract.
The first three affect the stomach specifically.
Peptic ulcer is a term used to describe an open sore in the stomach or duodenum. The symptoms can vary, but often include a gnawing or burning pain, indigestion, nausea, vomiting, and excessive gas.
Most peptic ulcers are caused by either the bacterium Helicobacter pylori or the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which may irritate and alter the protective mucosal layer of the digestive tract.
Gastritis is the medical term for the inflammation in the lining of the stomach. Gastritis is a far-ranging condition caused by everything from alcohol to aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) use to infection with H. pylori. In some cases, the condition will be idiopathic (meaning no cause is ever found).
Besides pain in the upper belly, which can range from a dull ache to an intensely sharp or burning pain, other symptoms of gastritis include feeling bloated, early satiety, decreased appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
Gastroparesis is a condition in which the stomach is slow to empty its contents into the small intestine. This condition is common in people with diabetes, but may also occur idiopathically.
Besides a diffuse aching or cramping abdominal pain, other symptoms of gastroparesis include nausea, a feeling of fullness, and vomiting after eating. In severe cases, a person may lose weight.
Your esophagus is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. Esophagitis refers to irritation and inflammation of the lining of the esophagus, which may occur for many reasons, including:
- Infection (for example, Candida or the herpes simplex virus)
- Taking certain medications (for example, the antibiotic clindamycin or aspirin)
- An allergy (called eosinophilic esophagitis)
- Besides heartburn and upper-belly pain, a person with esophagitis may notice difficulty swallowing or pain with swallowing.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux, is a condition in which stomach acid leaks back into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest or throat.
Besides heartburn, some other symptoms of GERD include regurgitation, trouble swallowing, stomach pain, hoarseness, cough, or feeling like there is a lump in the throat.
Gallstones are caused by the crystallization of bile in the gallbladder. This may lead to the formation of small, jagged stones that block the bile duct and cause severe, sharp pain by in the upper-right abdomen (a condition called acute cholecystitis).
There are numerous complications of gallstones, like pancreatitis or acute cholangitis, that may worsen your pain or cause other symptoms.
Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of your pancreas, a small gland that releases insulin to regulate your blood sugar levels and also aids in the digestion of fat. Alcohol and gallstone disease are the two most common causes of pancreatitis. Most people with acute pancreatitis develop severe, constant pain in their upper belly.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the consumption of gluten causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. In addition to abdominal discomfort, other symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, weight loss, and excessive gas.
Lactose intolerance is a condition in which a person lacks the enzyme needed to digest the sugars found in dairy products. People with lactose intolerance typically experience diarrhea, gas, or bloating soon after eating foods like milk or cheese.
Surprise, surprise! One of the most common causes of stomach pain is known as just that – pain. This can vary from a mild, dull ache to a severe, throbbing sensation in the upper stomach area. Most often, it’s caused by excessive acid in the stomach.
Other symptoms may include:
- Excessive wind, which can also make you feel bloated
- Feeling hungry but not being able to eat much before feeling full again
- Nausea or vomiting
Most cases of gastric pain will improve by themselves, or with a simple course of medication. However, if pain or discomfort does not improve, your doctor may arrange for a gastroscopy to exclude the possibility of an ulcer or bacterial infection.
Gastroenteritis is a condition where the stomach and intestines become irritated and inflamed, usually as a result of a bacterial or viral infection. Pain in the stomach is usually accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting, with some individuals also reporting a fever and headache.
Gastroenteritis can be spread in many ways, some of which include:
Contact with someone who has the condition
Intake of contaminated food or water
Failing to wash the hands after using the toilet
Gastroenteritis is most commonly caused by a virus, usually norovirus or rotavirus. Norovirus is the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis in the United States, whereas rotavirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in young children and infants. Gastroenteritis can also be triggered by Campylobacter bacteria and salmonella, which are usually spread as a result of the consumption of undercooked poultry or eggs.
Constipation commonly causes lower stomach pain, because it’s basically a build-up of digested food in your large intestine. Mild cases may only cause a bit of pain, but in more severe cases, symptoms may include:
Nausea and vomiting
Lower abdominal cramps
Loss of appetite
Constipation is usually easily relieved with a course of laxatives, but if the pain doesn’t go away after using the toilet, it is best to consult your doctor.
Food poisoning occurs as a result of eating toxic, contaminated, or spoiled food, which leads to vomiting and diarrhea. Food poisoning is a common problem, with one in six individuals in the United States experiencing it every year.
Usually, food poisoning is triggered by one of the following three factors:
- Bacteria – Salmonella is the most common cause of serious food poisoning in the U.S.; however, other culprits include E. coli, listeria, Campylobacter, and C. botulinum.
- Parasites – The most commonly occurring parasite to cause food poisoning is toxoplasma, which is usually found in cat litter boxes. Parasites can go undetected in the intestine for years, but people with weakened immune systems and women who are pregnant are at the greatest risk of serious side effects if parasites make their way into the intestine.
- Viruses – Some of the viruses that cause food poisoning include norovirus, sapovirus, rotavirus, and astrovirus, all of which cause similar symptoms.
If you’re female, it’s very common to experience pain in the lower part of your tummy when you’re on your period. Everyone experiences this differently, and levels of pain may vary from person to person. Occasionally, menstrual cramps occur alongside:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Low fever
You know your body best, so if the pain is a lot more severe than during previous periods, if it’s worse on the right or left side of your stomach, or if it drags on for a long time, speak to your doctor for more advice. They may need to rule out other ovarian conditions, such as an ectopic pregnancy.
If you’re also finding it painful to urinate or there’s blood in your urine, bear in mind that it could be a urinary tract infection. This is a very common condition, especially if you are sexually active.
Lower Gastrointestinal Tract
Diverticulosis refers to the development of little pouches within the lining of the colon. Infection and inflammation (called diverticulitis) may lead to symptoms ranging from lower abdominal tenderness to severe pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting.
The most common symptom of appendicitis is abdominal pain, which usually begins as a dull ache around the belly button. Over time, the pain moves to the lower-right part of the abdomen and becomes sharp. Other associated symptoms include a loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and fever.
Both GI Tracts
Some health conditions that cause perceived stomach pain may affect both the upper and lower digestive system.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, manifests with a wide range of gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal symptoms. The hallmark symptoms of Crohn’s disease include crampy abdominal pain along with non-blood diarrhea, while the cardinal symptoms of ulcerative colitis include colicky abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea.
Keep in mind that, while Crohn’s disease may affect the entire GI tract from mouth to anus, ulcerative colitis only affects the lower GI tract (colon and rectum).
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is characterized by a cluster of symptoms (including crampy stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhea) for which there is no evidence of underlying damage.
An abdominal hernia, which may cause stomach pain and a visible bulge, occurs when fatty tissue or an organ poke through a weak or torn area within the abdominal wall. There are different types of abdominal hernias; for example, an umbilical hernia occurs around the belly button, while an epigastric hernia occurs above the belly button. In men, inguinal hernias (near the groin) are the most common.
While less common, upper and lower abdominal pain may be a sign of cancer (such as of the ovaries, pancreas, stomach, colon, or liver). Be sure to see your doctor if your pain is persistent or you are experiencing other unusual symptoms like a change in bowel habits, blood in your stool or urine, excessive fatigue, or unexplained weight loss.
So, it’s made the list (because you were expecting it!) but contrary to popular belief, appendicitis is not one of the most common causes of stomach pain. Generally, only 1 in 20 people are ever affected, and those are usually between the ages of 10 and 30.
Of course, it’s good to be aware of the symptoms, just in case:
- Initial pain in the central stomach area (on and off) before it shifts to the right lower stomach area after a few hours (then remains constant)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain made worse by pressing the right lower stomach, coughing or walking
If you experience pain in your right lower stomach area that gets worse, you should seek medical advice as early as possible to secure a proper diagnosis. That still stands even if you don’t have any of the other symptoms listed above.