Abdominal pain is pain felt anywhere from below your ribs to your pelvis. It is also known as tummy pain or stomach pain. Your abdomen contains many organs such as your stomach, liver, pancreas, small and large bowel and reproductive organs. There are also major blood vessels in the abdomen. Most cases of abdominal pain are mild and have a variety of common causes, such as indigestion or muscle strain.
Abdominal pain is common but sometimes, it can be hard to know what’s causing it. Most pain in this part of your body will pass quickly and can be treated at home by yourself or with medication. However, there are times when the pain is more severe to treat at home. Sometimes, abdominal pain can stop and the cause will never be known. In most cases, it may be that the cause becomes more obvious with time.
Severe abdominal pain is a greater cause for concern. If it starts suddenly and unexpectedly, it should be regarded as a medical emergency, especially if the pain is concentrated in a particular area.
What are the causes of abdominal pain?
It can be difficult to know what is causing pain in your abdomen. Often the pain settles without knowing what caused it or needing any treatment.
Causes of sudden, severe abdominal pain include:
- gastroenteritis such as from food poisoning
- gallbladder problems such as gallstones
- diverticular disease and diverticulitis
- pancreatitis either acute or chronic
- a peptic ulcer in your stomach or duodenum
- heart or lung problems such as angina or heart attack
- urinary tract problems such as kidney stones or urinary tract infection (UTI)
- pelvic problems such as ectopic pregnancy, PID
- trauma or injury such as a muscle strain.
Causes of long-term or recurring abdominal pain include:
- indigestion or wind (flatulence)
- peptic ulcer disease
- Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- lactose intolerance or coeliac disease
- irritable bowel syndrome
- period pain
See your doctor as soon as possible if:
- your pain is no better after 2 hours of home care
- your abdomen is very painful (for example, if you can’t walk or have to walk bent over, or feel you need to hold your tummy all the time)
- pain gets worse over time, or becomes sharper or stronger in one particular place
- abdomen feels bloated or sticks out more than usual
- you can’t stop vomiting
- you haven’t had a bowel motion or passed wind for 3 days
- you’ve lost your appetite
- there is blood in your vomit, urine or bowel motion, or vaginal bleeding that isn’t a period.
You also need to see your doctor if you have other symptoms along with the pain – such as fever or dizziness – especially if those symptoms get worse over time or new symptoms develop
Diagnosis of abdominal pain
Tests and examinations includes:
- a rectal exam to check for hidden blood or other problems
- if you are a man, the doctor may check your pen*s and scrotum
- if you are a woman, the doctor may do a pelvic exam to check for problems in your womb (uterus), fallopian tubes and ovaries, and do a pregnancy test
- a blood test to look for infection, (which causes a raised white cell count) or bleeding (which causes a low blood count or haemoglobin)
- other blood tests may look at enzymes in the liver, pancreas and heart
- a urine test to look for a urine infection or blood (if there is a kidney stone)
- an ECG (an electrical tracing of the heart) to rule out a heart attack
- other tests, including x-ray, ultrasound or CT scan
- endoscopy is an examination where a flexible tube with a light and video camera at the tip is used to examine some internal organs without the need for surgery. Different names are used depending on which organ is being looked at.
If you do have tests, the doctor will explain the results to you.
Treatment for abdominal pain
Your treatment depends on what is causing your pain, but may include:
- Pain relief – your pain may not go away fully with painkillers, but it should ease.
- Fluids – you may have fluids given into a vein to correct fluid loss and rest your bowel.
- Medicines – in order to stop vomiting.
- Fasting – your doctor may ask you not to eat or drink anything until the cause of your pain is clear.
Lifestyle changes and home remedies
Most abdominal pain goes away without special treatment. But there are some things you can do to help ease the pain, including:
- Place a hot water bottle or warm towel on your abdomen.
- Soak yourself in a warm bath. Take care not to scald yourself.
- Drink plenty of clear fluids such as water.
- Reduce your intake of coffee, tea and alcohol as these can make the pain worse.
- When symptoms subside, start with clear liquids, then progress to bland foods such as crackers, rice, bananas or toast. Your doctor may advise you to avoid certain foods.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Try over-the-counter antacids, to help reduce some types of pain.
- Take mild painkillers such as paracetamol. Please check the packet for the right dose. Avoid aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs unless advised to take them by a doctor. These drugs can make some types of abdominal pain worse.