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Abdominal pain

  • Definition

    Abdominal pain is pain that you feel anywhere between your chest and groin. This is often referred to as the stomach region or belly.

    Alternative Names

    Stomach pain; Pain - abdomen; Belly ache; Abdominal cramps


    Almost everyone experiences pain in the abdomen at one time or another. Most of the time, it is not caused by a serious medical problem.

    There are many organs in the abdomen. Pain in the abdomen can originate from any one of them, including:

    • Organs related to digestion -- the end of the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas
    • The aorta -- a large blood vessel that runs straight down the inside of the abdomen
    • The appendix -- an organ in the lower right abdomen that no longer serves much function
    • The kidneys -- two bean-shaped organs that lie deep within the abdominal cavity
    • The spleen -- an organ involved in blood maintenance and infection control

    However, the pain may start from somewhere else -- like your chest or pelvic area. You may also have a generalized infection, such as the flu or strep throat, that affects many parts of your body.

    The intensity of the pain does not always reflect the seriousness of the condition causing the pain. Severe abdominal pain can be from mild conditions, such as gas or the cramping of viral gastroenteritis. On the other hand, relatively mild pain or no pain may be present with life-threatening conditions, such as cancer of the colon or early appendicitis.

    Other ways of describing pain in your abdomen include:

    • Pain may be generalized, meaning that it is present in more than half of your belly. This is more typical for a stomach virus, indigestion, or gas. If the pain becomes more severe, it may be caused by a blockage of the intestines.
    • Pain that is localized is found in only one area of your belly. This type of pain is more likely to be a sign of a problem in one of your organs, such as the appendix, gallbladder, or stomach (ulcers).
    • Cramp-like pain is usually not serious, and is more likely to be due to gas and bloating. It is often followed by diarrhea. More worrisome signs include pain that occurs more often, lasts longer (more than 24 hours), or has a fever with it.
    • Colicky pain is pain that comes in waves, usually starts and ends suddenly, and is often severe. Kidney stones and gallstones are common causes of this type of belly pain.

    Common Causes

    Many different conditions can cause abdominal pain. The key is to know when you must seek medical care right away. In many cases you can simply wait, use home care remedies, and call your doctor at a later time only if the symptoms persist.

    Possible causes include:

    • Appendicitis (inflammation of the appendix)
    • Bowel blockage or obstruction
    • Cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder) with or without gallstones
    • Chronic constipation
    • Dissecting abdominal aortic aneurysm
    • Diverticulitis
    • Food allergy
    • Food poisoning (salmonella, shigella) or viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
    • Heartburn, indigestion, or gastroesophageal reflux
    • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
    • Intussusception -- while uncommon, this is a serious possible cause of pain in an infant who may be bringing the knees to the chest and crying
    • Irritable bowel syndrome
    • Ischemic bowel
    • Kidney stones
    • Lactose intolerance
    • Mesenteric insufficiency or infarction (lack of enough blood supply to the gut, sometimes resulting in the failure or death of part of the bowel or intestines)
    • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
    • Tumors or cancers
    • Ulcers
    • Urinary tract infections

    When an inflamed organ (such as the appendix) in the abdomen ruptures or leaks fluid, the pain is not only excruciating, but the abdomen becomes stiff and very tender to the touch. There is also a fever. This occurs as peritonitis (inflammation and infection of the lining of the abdominal cavity) develops and spreads from the site of the rupture. This is a medical emergency.

    In infants, prolonged unexplained crying (often called "colic") may be caused by abdominal pain that may end with the passage of gas or stool. Colic is often worse in the evening. Cuddling and rocking the child may bring some relief.

    Abdominal pain that occurs during menstruation may be from menstrual cramps or it may indicate a problem in a reproductive organ. This includes conditions such as endometriosis (when tissue from the uterus is displaced to somewhere else like the pelvic wall or ovaries), or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) (infection of the reproductive organs, usually from a sexually transmitted disease). An ectopic pregnancy, or a pregnancy outside the normal location in the uterus, may mimic menstrual cramping and bleeding. However, symptoms are usually more intense than those usually experienced during a menstrual period.

    Abdominal pain may actually be caused by an organ in the chest, like the lungs (for example, pneumonia) or the heart (like a heart attack). Or, it may stem from a muscle strain in the abdominal muscles.

    Cancers of the colon and other gastrointestinal areas are serious but uncommon causes of abdominal pain.

    Other more unusual causes of abdominal pain include a type of emotional upset called somatization disorder, reflected as physical discomfort (including recurrent abdominal pain). Strep throat in children can cause abdominal pain.

    Sickle cell disease crisis may cause abdominal pain. It sometimes may be mistaken for the pain of appendicitis or conditions of other abdominal organs.

    Shingles (an infection of the nerves associated with a skin rash, which is caused by the chicken pox virus) may cause pain in the abdomen. However, because the rash comes several days after the start of the pain, it can be mistaken for appendicitis or other conditions of the abdominal organs.