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Digestive health centre

Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain is a common symptom, and although is not usually a cause for concern it can be a sign of a serious illness. 

It is important to be able to recognise symptoms that are severe and know when to seek medical advice.

What are the most common causes of abdominal pain?

Whether it is a mild stomach-ache, sharp pain or stomach cramps, abdominal pain has numerous causes. These include:

  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Appendicitis
  • Stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis)
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Food poisoning
  • Food allergies
  • Wind
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Ulcers
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Hernia
  • Gallstones
  • Kidney stones
  • Endometriosis
  • Crohn's disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease ( GORD)

What symptoms of abdominal pain are causes for concern?

If your abdominal pain is severe or if it is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, seek medical advice as soon as possible:

  • Fever
  • Inability to keep food down for several days
  • Inability to pass stools, especially if you are also vomiting
  • Vomiting blood
  • Bloody stools
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Painful or unusually frequent urination
  • The pain occurs during pregnancy
  • The abdomen is tender to the touch
  • The pain is the result of an injury to the abdomen in the previous days
  • The pain lasts for several days

These symptoms can be an indication of an internal problem that requires treatment as soon as possible.

How is the cause of abdominal pain determined?

Because there are so many potential causes of abdominal pain, your doctor will perform a thorough physical examination, discuss with you the type of symptoms you are experiencing, and ask you several related questions about the pain you are feeling. These questions may include:

  • What type of pain are you experiencing? Is the pain throughout your abdomen or is it confined to a particular area?
  • Where in your abdomen does the pain seem to be located?
  • What type of pain are you experiencing? Is it stabbing and severe? Is it a dull ache?
  • When does the pain occur? Always? More often in the morning or at night? If the pain comes and goes, about how long does it last each time? Does it occur after eating certain types of foods or after drinking alcohol? During menstruation?
  • How long have you had this pain?
  • Does the pain also radiate to your lower back, shoulder, groin or buttocks?
  • Are you currently taking any medications or herbal supplements?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Does any activity such as eating or lying on one side relieve the pain?
  • Have you been injured recently?

Once an initial evaluation has been completed, your doctor may arrange some tests to help diagnose your pain. These may include blood, stool or urine tests, barium meals or enemas, an endoscopy, x-ray, ultrasound or a CT (or CAT) scan.

How is abdominal pain treated?

Treating abdominal pain depends on its cause. Medications may be given for problems such as inflammation, indigestion or ulcers. Sometimes antibiotics are needed for infections. If your doctor thinks that your abdominal pain is caused by certain foods or beverages, you may be advised to avoid these for a time to see whether the pain improves. In some cases such as appendicitis and hernia, surgery is necessary.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 10, 2014

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