When Abdominal Pain or Discomfort Strikes

Causes, treatments, and reasons not to wait it out

You probably don't think about the internal workings of your belly much -- unless they're red-flagging you with sharp pain, aches, or cramping. Even then, you may dismiss the discomfort or pain as just transient gas -- or some other minor intestinal disturbance -- and simply wait for it to go away.

But you don't have to live with the pain. Whether your abdominal pain or discomfort is a sharp, short-term annoyance or a chronic hurt that dogs you regularly, you have options for making it go away. The first step is figuring out what's causing the pain so that you can treat the source.

What's Going On in There?

Sometimes it's difficult to determine the root cause of a bellyache. The source of the pain could be any one of a number of structures and organs within your abdomen, including your appendix, kidneys, liver, reproductive organs, and aorta;, or it could be caused by any of the organs involved in digestion, such as your stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, or intestines. You also have a myriad of muscles, tendons, and other connective tissue located in this region of the body. Abdominal pain could even be caused by problems completely unrelated to the abdomen, such as a heart attack or pneumonia.

So if you have abdominal pain, and it's chronic, moderate to severe, or in any way worrisome to you, it's best to get a doctor's opinion on what might be amiss. Otherwise, it's just a guessing game.

Your doctor will ask you questions about your pain -- questions that, combined with your medical history and physical exam, are designed to help pinpoint the possible causes of your symptoms.

Tell Your Doctor...

  • When the pain began
  • Where the pain is located
  • What kind of pain it is (sharp, dull, throbbing, etc.)
  • How severe the pain is
  • Whether the pain is in a specific location or all over
  • How frequently you feel the pain
  • What makes it worse
  • What makes it better
  • How the pain is affecting your life

Is It Serious?

Abdominal pain can vary greatly, from minor to excruciating. But here's the kicker: Sometimes excruciating pain can result from something pretty harmless. For example, most people know what it's like to be doubled over with gas pain. Yet some serious problems, such as celiac disease or colon cancer, may not cause you too much discomfort in the early stages.

So don't judge your problems solely by the severity of your pain. Severe, incapacitating pain is always a reason to see your doctor right away. But for mild to moderate pain, consider the following red flags as well, and call your doctor if you experience them:

  • Abdominal discomfort that lasts a week or longer
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Bloating that lasts longer than 2 days (not associated with PMS)
  • Diarrhea for more than 3 days
  • Fever with your pain
  • Pain that develops during pregnancy (or possible pregnancy)
  • Prolonged poor appetite
  • Tenderness of the abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Black, tarry stool
  • Thin, ribbon-like stool

Signs that you need to see a doctor immediately include a rigid abdomen; a high fever with your pain (over 101°F); bloody diarrhea or vomit; an inability to pass stool, gas, or urine; or pain that is incapacitating, lasts several hours, is accompanied by vomiting, or might be symptomatic of a medical emergency, such as a heart attack.

Learn about some unusual heart attack symptoms here.

Smart Self-Care

For mild cases of abdominal pain or discomfort, or for a little relief from the pain until you see your doctor, here are six self-help steps you can try. They may help relieve some, but not all, instances of gastrointestinal pain.

  • Drink plenty of water, but take infrequent, small sips.
  • Avoid foods that are known to exacerbate some causes of abdominal pain, such as gas, diarrhea, constipation, or heartburn. This includes greasy foods, spicy foods, citrus, tomato products, dairy products, and chocolate.
  • Cut back on foods and beverages that contain alcohol or caffeine.
  • Avoid medications known to irritate the stomach lining, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If your prescription medications cause stomach upset, speak to your doctor before discontinuing them.
  • For pain related to stomach acid, try over-the-counter antacids. Gas pain may be relieved with antacids that contain simethicone and activated charcoal.
  • After pain subsides, eat a bland diet for a day or so.

Some digestive problems are minor and can be remedied with self-care. Others may require prescription treatments or -- although rare -- may constitute a potential medical emergency. The first step: Speak with your healthcare provider so you can get an accurate diagnosis. If you have regular abdominal troubles, make an appointment today.