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Abdominal Pain: What’s Normal and When to See a Doctor


Abdominal pain is very common and often minor. People experiencing pain in this area often use a term such as a stomachache or a bellyache to describe their symptoms. Pain in the abdomen can come from the digestive system, urinary system, or reproductive system.

Abdominal pain can be sharp, dull, or crampy and may be accompanied by a sick or nauseous feeling and vomiting.

Often the cause of abdominal pain is indigestion, gas pain, or a strained muscle. This is usually harmless, and the discomfort resolves over a few hours or days. Sometimes it is caused by a more serious condition and may be a medical emergency, so it is important to know when to see a doctor.

Types of Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain can happen for a variety of reasons and different types of pain occur depending on which organs or tissues are involved. Types of pain include:

  • Visceral pain which originates from the organs within the abdomen. It is described as vague, dull, and nauseating and occurs when organs stretch or muscles contract.
  • Somatic pain which originates from the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity. It is described as sharp and easy to pinpoint and occurs in response to irritation and inflammation.
  • Referred pain which is felt in a location far away from the site where the problem begins. It occurs when the brain is unable to pinpoint the source of discomfort. With referred pain, pain due to an abdominal issue may be felt somewhere unexpected – such as the shoulder.

Causes of Acute Pain

Acute abdominal pain starts suddenly. It can range from mild to severe and may be felt all over the abdomen or only in one part. Pain can arise from a variety of causes including infection, ulcer, blockage, inflammation, or perforation (hole).

Common causes of acute abdominal pain include:

  • Appendicitis
  • Virus
  • Gallstones
  • Diverticulitis
  • Abscess
  • Kidney stones
  • Bowel perforation
  • Perforated ulcer
  • Pancreatitis
  • Ruptured cyst in the ovary
  • Ectopic pregnancy

Acute Abdominal Pain Warning Signs

Certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern in people with acute abdominal pain. They include:

  • Pain resulting from an accident or injury
  • Pressure or pain in the chest
  • Intense or severe pain that doubles the person over
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Blood in vomit, stool, or urine
  • Confusion
  • Swelling of the abdomen

People who have warning signs of acute abdominal pain should seek immediate medical attention.

Causes of Chronic Pain

Chronic abdominal pain is pain that occurs for a long period of time. It may be continuous or come and go. This type of pain may be present for weeks to months, or even years. Common causes of chronic abdominal pain include:

  • Constipation
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Indigestion due to stomach ulcer
  • Liver disorder
  • Gallbladder disorder
  • Emotional factors such as stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Irritable bowel disease
  • Medications such as aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Food intolerance
  • Stomach, pancreatic, colon, or ovarian cancer

Chronic Abdominal Pain Warning Signs

Certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern in people with chronic abdominal pain. They include:

  • High fever
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Pain that awakens the person during the night
  • Steady, worsening pain
  • Blood in vomit, stool, or urine
  • Severe or frequent vomiting
  • Severe or frequent diarrhea
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • Swelling of the abdomen, legs, or both
  • Difficulty swallowing

Warning signs usually indicate that a physical cause for pain is very likely. People who have warning signs should seek immediate medical attention.

When To Schedule a Doctor’s Visit

While abdominal pain is common and is usually not a problem, it is important to not dismiss it. If you have any signs or symptoms that might suggest a serious problem, seek prompt medical care.

Don’t suffer from abdominal pain any longer – schedule an appointment today.

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