What causes abdominal pain?
Abdominal pain can arise from organs of the digestive tract, or from other organs located in the pelvis and abdomen, including your kidneys, bladder, ovaries, womb and abdominal muscles.
Disorders that commonly cause abdominal pain in all the digestive organs include infection, gaseous distension, ulcer formation (a break in the lining of the digestive organ), mechanical obstruction or blockage, inflammation, or perforation (where a hole occurs in the wall of an organ. Pain may also occur without an objective structural finding, due for example to a disorder of brain-gut interaction.
If you experience one of the following symptoms (among others) in addition to abdominal pain, you should seek immediate medical attention:
- Weight loss
- Nighttime pain interrupting sleep
- Pain that is steadily worsening
- Pain that does not resolve
- Vomiting, especially if you continue being unable to keep food down
- An inability to make a bowel movement
- Painful urination
- Tenderness or swelling in your abdomen
- Blood in vomit or stool
- Black or tar-like stool
- Yellowing skin
How serious is abdominal pain?
In some instances, bad abdominal pain signals a serious problem. In a small minority of cases, it may be life-threatening and require an immediate operation. In the case of acute infection or blockage, for example, we may need to operative immediately in order to avoid a catastrophic organ rupture.
In others, it can signal a transient and insignificant problem, such as with excess gas.
Likewise, serious abdominal illness may cause bad pain, or may cause no pain at all, as with many colorectal cancers.
What specific illnesses commonly cause abdominal pain?
- Acid-related illnesses such as indigestion, ulcers or acid reflux
- A pulled or strained muscle in the abdominal wall
- Constipation or diarrhea
- A stomach virus
- Menstrual cramps
- Food poisoning
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Celiac disease
- Gynecological diseases such as infections, endometriosis, and ruptured ovarian cysts
- Gallstones or kidney stones
- Infections such as appendicitis or diverticulitis
- Intestinal cancer
When should I seek medical care?
If you are experiencing chronic, repetitive, or severe abdominal pain, it is important to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. There are some “alarm signs” that also indicate a higher likelihood of a serious underlying problem. Gastroenterologists are experts in diagnosing and treating abdominal pain.
How do we investigate abdominal pain?
We begin by taking a history and doing a physical exam. Because there are so many possible causes, the accurate diagnosis of abdominal pain can require tests. These may include a stool, urine, or blood tests; imaging studies such as a CT or MRI scan; or procedures, such as a colonoscopy or endoscopy. Usually this testing occurs in the outpatient setting, but if you are acutely and severely ill, we may recommend that you go to the hospital.