Most abdominal pain isn’t a concern, but you shouldn’t ignore it either. Look for these red flags.
Most people will experience some type of stomach pain in their lifetime.
Stomach pain, which is typically referred to as abdominal pain by doctors, can occur anywhere from the chest down to the groin. It can be a sharp pain that shoots up your abdomen or a dull ache that throbs in one spot. Abdominal pain can be caused by something as benign as gas or constipation to more severe conditions like inflammation in the colon and stomach ulcers.
The good news is that, most of the time, abdominal pain is no big deal. Even if you’re dealing with a more chronic condition, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a food intolerance, symptoms can typically be significantly improved with some dietary and lifestyle changes.
“Most of abdominal pain is caused by non-life-threatening benign issues, and most of them self resolve,” Badr Al Bawardy, a Yale Medicine gastroenterologist, told HuffPost.
Here are the most common types of stomach pain:
Stomach Pain From What Or How You Eat
Certain foods, such as high-fiber fruits and foods rich in carbohydrates, can be difficult for some people to digest and lead to gas and bloating. Overeating and eating too quickly can also lead to indigestion and discomfort.
Routinely taking certain medications, like aspirin or ibuprofen, can also cause inflammation in the stomach that may cause pain, said Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, a clinical associate professor of medicine in the divisions of gastroenterology and hepatology at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Constipation, or infrequent bowel movements, is one of the leading causes of abdominal discomfort. It’s caused by a range of health issues, including medications, a lack of exercise, diet and changes in lifestyle. Being constipated doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re dealing with some sort of underlying condition, but nonetheless, it can be painful to deal with.
“If they notice that they have pain and they haven’t emptied their bowels in a while or have incomplete bowels, then they need to either take a laxative or an enema to unplug,” Ganjhu said.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is one of the most common causes of abdominal pain and impacts 10 to 15% of the population. To get an IBS diagnosis, patients need abdominal pain, irregular bowel habits (like diarrhea or constipation) and pain that either improves or worsens with bowel movements, Al Bawardy explained.
IBS pain can be mild or severe and include anything from stomach cramping to swelling the stomach and excessive gas. With IBS, the colon muscle contracts too frequently and triggers cramps and pain, typically in the lower half of the abdomen.
IBS can be managed by changing what you eat and drink, regularly exercising and getting enough sleep. Certain medications, like fiber supplements, laxatives and pain medications, can alleviate symptoms, too.
Pain From How Food Moves Through Your Stomach
Another condition, known as gastroparesis, occurs when the stomach has a hard time emptying food and water. These contents collect in the stomach and trigger bloating, pain, nausea and a feeling of fullness after a few bites oof food.
“The stomach doesn’t relax and is contracting when it should be relaxing,” Ganjhu said.
Gastroparesis is more prevalent in older people, along with people with anxiety and those who take antidepressants, Ganjhu said. Though there’s no cure for gastroparesis, dietary changes and medication can provide relief.
Small Bowel Bacteria Overgrowth
This condition, also known as SIBO, occurs when there’s an abnormal increase in the amount of bacteria in the small intestine. SIBO can be caused by stress, travel, antibiotic use, alcohol use and certain medications like a proton pump inhibitor. All of these things can disrupt the microbiome, according to Ganjhu.
SIBO frequently causes painful bloating when air gets trapped in the small bowel or colon, along with an uncomfortable feeling of fullness and nausea. It’s diagnosed via a breath test or small intestine fluid culture and can be treated with antibiotics and nutritional support.
Though food allergies don’t typically lead to pain, food intolerances can contribute to abdominal pain, irritating gas and causing bloating within a few hours after eating the food. With food intolerances, the digestive system lacks certain enzymes that are necessarily to break down specific foods.
The most common food intolerances include lactose (milk), histamine (chemicals that naturally occur in cheese, pineapples, bananas, avocados and chocolate) and gluten (a protein in wheat, rye and barley).
Gallstones, or pebble-like pieces of hardened bile, are pretty common, impacting about 10 to 15% of the U.S. population. This condition also tends to be more common in women, pregnant people and individuals with obesity.
While gallstones are asymptomatic in most people, some may experience intense pain in the right upper side of their abdomen. It can last a few minutes or a few hours.
This pain can really vary between patients — “sometimes it’s a cramping pain, sometimes it’s associated with nausea, sometimes it’s associated with fatty meals,” Ganjhu said. In certain cases, gallstones can be passed or dissolve with medications, however, some people may require surgery.
Period And Pelvic Pain
While nearly everyone with a uterus experiences some type of period or pelvic pain in their lifetime, certain types of pelvic pain may indicate there’s a more serious underlying health issue.
Mild to moderate cramping is considered to be a normal side effect of menstruation, but if if the cramps last longer than a few days, worsen into a sharp, stabbing or throbbing sensation or impact your ability to function, you may have a gynecologic condition like endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, fibroids or adenomyosis. These conditions are often overlooked and dismissed as typical menstrual pain, so it’s crucial to advocate for yourself and find a doctor who will listen and help you find a diagnosis in order to start treatment.
How To Cope With Stomach Pain
To alleviate abdominal pain, you first need to get a correct diagnosis because your treatment plan — whether that’s adjusting your diet, taking medications or undergoing a procedure — will really depend on what’s causing the pain.
If the pain persists, it’s worth setting up an appointment with a gastroenterologist who can run tests to pinpoint the root of your pain. Al Bawardy also recommended keeping a diet diary to see if certain foods or activities might be contributing to your abdominal pain. He also suggested partnering with a dietitian, so if you do notice any trends, you can work with a professional to modify your diet in a healthful, balanced manner.
If you experience pain and also develop bloody stools or black, tarry stools, weight loss or persistent nausea and vomiting, you’ll want to see a health care provider immediately. They could indicate you may be dealing with a more serious condition like a stomach ulcer, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or colon cancer.
“Those are what we call red alarm symptoms — if the pain is associated with them, they should seek care,” Al Bawardy said.
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