Everyone, at some point, will likely experience abdominal pain in their lifetime. Whether it’s from gas, bloating, or gastroenteritis (stomach flu), abdominal pain is very common. However, gas and stomach flu subside after a few hours or days. Some cases of abdominal pain should not be ignored and require medical care. If your abdominal pain is severe, you should always seek medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Read on to learn about the causes of abdominal pain and when you should seek medical attention.
What Is Abdominal Pain?
Abdominal pain is described as pain or discomfort that is felt anywhere between the ribs and the pelvis. The abdomen is home to many organs, including:
- Small intestine
- Large intestine
Because of this, it is important to seek medical care to diagnose and treat severe abdominal pain.
Stomach pain can also be felt in the muscles of your abdomen—for example, if you’ve been vomiting or coughing profusely. Abdominal pain can also be mistaken for pain in other areas of the body, such as the back or chest.
If you do experience abdominal pain that requires medical attention, it’s important to describe it as well as you can to your healthcare provider. For example, abdominal pain can be:
- Constant or intermittent
- Localized to one area or generalized (entire abdomen)
- Dull or sharp
- Burning or achy
- Mild or severe
The location of your abdominal pain is also vital. Tell your physician if your pain is in the right or left side, as well as the quadrant:
- Right upper quadrant
- Left upper quadrant
- Right lower quadrant
- Left lower quadrant
This information is key, as it gives your provider more insight as to what may be causing your pain. For example, if you have severe stomach pain in your upper right quadrant, you may have a problem with your gallbladder or liver.
It’s imperative to tell your gastroenterologist how you are feeling so they can properly diagnose your abdominal pain. Abdominal pain is a general term, and if it is severe, there’s typically an underlying condition that must be treated.
What Causes Abdominal Pain?
There are many causes of abdominal pain—some mild and others very serious. As previously stated, the location of pain is very important for severe cases so the underlying cause can be treated. Some causes of abdominal pain include:
If you have abdominal pain after eating, it may be due to:
- Food intolerance or allergy
- Food poisoning
Abdominal pain as it relates to digestion problems is not typically serious and should go away on its own.
Inflammation of the organs
Inflammation can also cause stomach pain and may include conditions, such as:
- Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
- Urinary tract infection
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Peptic ulcer
The female reproductive cycle can also cause abdominal pain, such as ovulation pain or menstrual cramps.
More severe cases of abdominal pain
Location is very important and can be indicative of an underlying issue.
Pain in the right upper quadrant
Abdominal pain in the right upper quadrant is often associated with gallbladder or liver disease, such as liver cancer, gallbladder cancer, and bile duct cancer. Pain in this area can also be from hepatitis or gallbladder inflammation. Pain in the right upper quadrant can also be localized, such as a kidney infection, bowel obstruction, or kidney stones.
Pain in the left upper quadrant
Pain in this area may be from a problem in the spleen, pancreas, or stomach, such as:
- Pancreatic cancer
- Stomach ulcer
- Stomach cancer
If it feels like the pain is emanating from the chest, it could be due to pneumonia, heartburn, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, or angina.
Pain in the lower abdomen
Pain in the lower abdomen likely indicates a problem with the small or large intestine. This could mean:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and/or ulcerative colitis
- Colon cancer
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine cancer
Pain in the left and right lower quadrants
Pain in the lower left quadrant may be due to diverticulitis, and pain in the lower right quadrant may be due to appendicitis, or in rare cases, appendix cancer.
When Do I Need Medical Attention?
If your abdominal pain is severe or persistent, you should seek medical care right away. Pregnant women should always seek medical care for unexplained abdominal pain. Other symptoms that should implore you to consult a gastroenterologist include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blood in the stool, vomit, or urine
- Shortness of breath
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
These symptoms combined with unexplained or severe abdominal pain require medical attention.
How Common Are Stomach Aches?
Cleveland Clinic estimates everyone will have a stomach ache at some point in their lifetime. Most often, stomach aches are caused by digestive problems or stomach flu, and they will subside on their own. It’s estimated that abdominal pain comprises 5 percent of all emergency room visits.