10 possible causes of abdominal pain

Abdominal pain refers to discomfort in the space between the chest and pelvis. It can have various causes, including trapped gas, ulcers, or gastroenteritis.

Symptoms often resolve quickly on their own or with home treatment.

However, abdominal pain, especially with severe or chronic symptoms, can also be a sign of more serious underlying medical conditions, including cancer or organ failure.

Sudden and severe or long lasting abdominal pain may require immediate medical treatment.

What is abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain describes discomfort in the space between the chest and pelvis. Discomfort or irregularities in any organ or part of the abdomen can cause pain that radiates throughout the entire area.

Many people refer to abdominal pain as a stomachache. However, the abdomen contains many vital organs, muscles, blood vessels, and connective tissues that include the:

  • stomach
  • kidneys
  • liver
  • small and large intestines
  • appendix
  • pancreas
  • gallbladder
  • spleen

The main artery of the heart (aorta) and another heart vein (inferior vena cava) pass through the abdomen too. The abdomen is also home to the four groups of abdominal muscles that give the trunk stability and keep organs in place and protected.

Common causes of abdominal pain and their symptoms

Abdominal pain may result from a wide range of causes.

Additionally, research from 2023 suggests that the most common causes of nontraumatic abdominal pain lasting fewer than 7 days are:

  • gastroenteritis
  • nonspecific abdominal pain, which means that healthcare professionals did not identify the cause of the pain
  • gallstones
  • kidney stones
  • diverticulitis
  • appendicitis

1. Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)

Viruses, bacteria, and parasites can cause gastroenteritis. However, people usually use the term “stomach flu” to refer to viral gastroenteritis.

In this case, the abdominal pain is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and watery diarrhea. Additionally, viral gastroenteritis may sometimes cause fever and may lead to dehydration.

2. Gallstones

Gallstones may form if bile contains too much bilirubin or cholesterol or not enough bile salts. Gallstones may also occur if the gallbladder does not completely empty or does not empty frequently enough.

A person typically does not experience any symptoms unless the gallstones block the bile duct, causing bile to build up in the gallbladder. This can cause a gallbladder attack, which may present with pain in the upper right abdomen. This abdominal pain may last for several hours.

3. Kidney stones

Kidney stones may form in one or both

Trusted Source

 kidneys as a result of high levels of certain minerals in the urine. These minerals include calcium, oxalate, and phosphorous.

A person should contact a healthcare professional immediately if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • sharp pain in the lower abdomen, side, back, or groin
  • blood in the urine, which may appear pink, red, or brown
  • a constant need to urinate
  • pain while urinating
  • inability to urinate or only urinating in small amounts
  • cloudy or foul-smelling urine

Kidney stones can also cause:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • chills

4. Diverticulitis

Diverticula are pouches that may form and push outward through weak spots in a person’s large intestine, or colon.

Diverticulitis refers to inflammation of the diverticula. It can cause abdominal pain, typically in the lower left side. Other symptoms of diverticulitis include:

  • diarrhea or constipation
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • chills
  • fever

5. Appendicitis

Appendicitis describes inflammation of the appendix. It can cause abdominal pain that may:

  • start near the belly button and move lower and to the right
  • start suddenly, possibly waking a person if they are sleeping
  • worsen during movement, deep breathing, sneezing, or coughing
  • be severe and feel different than any pain a person has felt before
  • occur before other symptoms and worsen over a few hours

Other symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal bloating

It may also cause bowel issues, such as:

  • diarrhea or constipation
  • inability to pass gas
  • a feeling that having a bowel movement will help relieve discomfort

Appendicitis is a medical emergency. A person should call 911 or local emergency services immediately if they think they or someone else has appendicitis.

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6. Trapped gas

Gas occurs when bacteria in the small intestine break down foods that the body finds intolerant. It can also occur if a person swallows more air than usual.

Trapped gas may cause abdominal pain. It may also cause abdominal bloating and flatulence or belching.

7. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Doctors do not know exactly what causes IBS. Abdominal pain is the primary symptom for many people with IBS. It often occurs alongside bowel movements and changes in bowel movements, which may include constipation, diarrhea, or both.

Other common symptoms include:

  • bloating
  • feeling that a bowel movement is not complete
  • mucus in the stool

8. Gastroesophageal reflux (GER)

Occasionally, stomach acids travel backward, moving up into the throat. This reflux typically causes heartburn and regurgitation. People refer to chronic GER as gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD).

GER may also cause:

  • pain in the abdomen
  • difficulty swallowing
  • abdominal bloating
  • nausea
  • belching

9. Constipation

When too much waste collects in the bowel, it increases the pressure on the colon, which may cause abdominal pain.

Constipation occurs for many reasons, including:

  • too little fiber or fluid in the diet
  • taking certain medications
  • low levels of physical activity
  • pregnancy

It can also be a sign of a neurological disorder or a blockage in the intestine. If constipation persists and is uncomfortable, experts recommend talking with a doctor.

10. Food intolerances

Food intolerance is when a person’s body has difficulty digesting certain foods or ingredients in food.

Food intolerance may cause abdominal pain and other symptoms, such as:

  • bloating
  • diarrhea
  • flatulence

When to see a doctor

Most cases of abdominal pain are not serious and do not last for a long time.

Sudden and severe or chronic abdominal pain, however, are often signs of conditions that do require medical attention and treatment.

Symptoms that require medical attention include:

  • abdominal pain that worsens quickly
  • abdominal pain or bloating that does not go away or keeps coming back
  • abdominal pain and difficulty swallowing food
  • unexplained weight loss
  • suddenly needing to urinate more often or less often than usual
  • sudden pain while urinating
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • minor rectal (anal) bleeding or blood in stool
  • diarrhea or constipation that does not go away after a few days

Symptoms that require emergency care include:

  • severe abdominal pain while being fewer than 16 weeks pregnant
  • very sudden or severe abdominal pain
  • pain when touching the abdomen

People experiencing the above symptoms should seek emergency medical attention by calling 911 or local emergency services immediately.

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Abdominal pain can result from a wide range of causes, including gastroenteritis, peptic ulcers, and menstruation.

In many cases, abdominal pain does not last for a long time and is not serious. However, severe or chronic abdominal pain may indicate an underlying health condition.

People can speak with a doctor for more information about what may be causing their abdominal pain and how to treat it.


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