5 Questions to Ask If You Have Stomach Pain

5 Questions to Ask If You Have Stomach Pain

You’ve got an aching belly—but does it warrant a trip to the ER? Use this cheat sheet as your guide.

Whether you call it a stomach ache, tummy ache or the more medical “abdominal pain,” we’ve all had stomach pain. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons people go to the ER. It also has one of the most complex lists of potential causes—from the benign (a pulled stomach muscle) to life threatening (appendicitis). Talk to an ER doctor and you’ll find someone who’s accustomed to evaluating it on a regular basis. (I saw several patients in the ER yesterday alone with this problem).

So, you know what abdominal pain feels like. But how do you know when to ride it out at home or make a trip to the ER? As an ER doctor, I’m often asked this. To make things a little easier, here’s a cheat sheet I share with my friends and family. If you answer yes to any of these questions, consider heading to the ER:

  • Severity: Is the pain so severe that when it’s present, you can’t focus on or do other things?
  • Vomiting: Are you also vomiting? Vomiting alone doesn’t mean you need to go to the ER, but are you vomiting so much that you’re unable to keep down even fluids? Are you vomiting blood?
  • Output: Okay, no one likes to talk about this, but I’m a doctor, so I have to ask. Are you having changes in your stool like blood or dark black (also potentially a sign of bleeding)? Is there blood in your urine?
  • Other symptoms: Are you having difficulty breathing? Chest pain? Does the abdominal pain spread directly to your back?
  • Other history: Have you recently had abdominal surgery? Are you pregnant (or have you recently given birth)? Has there been other trauma to your stomach/abdominal area? Are you on chemotherapy or do you have any other condition that could compromise your immune system?

I know that sometimes it can be tough to know when to seek care—and many people try to “tough it out.” The very best gauge is your own gut (literally). If what you’re experiencing is severe, different from anything you’ve felt before or just worrisome to you, don’t second-guess it. Let an ER doctor evaluate you. It’s why we’re here.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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