Abdominal pain is a common symptom of gastrointestinal problems. It may signal anything from food poisoning to cancer. It is distinguished from abdominal bloating or distension, which also can cause pain, but which is associated with the "ballooning" feeling caused by excess gas or other internal pressure.
Because abdominal pain is often a symptom of serious illness, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible. A clear description of the pain will allow your doctor to make a quick diagnosis and begin treatment. Some questions your doctor may need you to answer include:
- When did you first notice the pain?
- Had you been doing or eating anything different when the pain occurred?
- Does the pain occur while eating, right after eating or in the middle of the night?
- Did the pain come on suddenly or slowly?
- Is the pain sharp, or is it more of a dull ache?
- Is the pain steady, or does it come and go?
- Where does the pain seem to be located? Near the navel? In the lower right part of the abdomen?
- Is the pain only in your abdomen, or does it seem to be spreading to your back or chest?
- Do you do anything that makes the pain better or worse?
Some conditions that can cause abdominal pain as a major symptom include:
Acute pancreatitis: Sudden pain in the upper abdomen, which often pentrates to the back. The two most common causes are excessive alcohol use and gallstones. Pain is usually constant and accompanied with nausea or vomiting. Eating or drinking makes the pain worse.
Appendicitis: Pain starts as a generalized pain, fairly constant, possibly localized at or above the navel. Within hours, the pain and inflammation become more severe and localized in the lower right part of the abdomen.
Bowel obstruction: Pain can come and go, with spasms that last a minute or so, recurring every few minutes. Pain may be weak or strong, depending on the extent of the obstruction.Nausea and vomiting are common.
Chronic pancreatitis: Pain similar to acute pancreatitis but may persist for longer periods of time.
Crohn's disease: The pain of Crohn's disease varies and may occur anywhere in the abdomen. Sometimes the pain is most intense in the lower right side of the abdomen, and the symptoms can be similar to appendicitis. Pain may be crampy or constant, and it may be accompanied by bloody diarrhea.
Diverticular disease: Pain most often occurs in the lower abdomen, usually on the left side. The pain tends to be constant and moderate in severity.
Gallstones: Severe, sometimes crampy, pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen. Pain can spread from the abdomen to the back and shoulders. Pain is often worse after eating, especially fatty foods.
Hepatitis: Mild to moderate pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen. In acute hepatitis, it often is accompanied by loss of appetite and nausea.
Irritable bowel syndrome: The pain of irritable bowel syndrome is often felt in the mid- to lower abdomen, and it is relieved after a bowel movement or passage of gas. Symptoms tend to be crampy, although they may be constant and often worsen in times of stress.
Pancreatic cancer: Sometimes cancer occurs without pain, and at other times pain develops slowly in the upper abdomen and can radiate to the back. The pain may be the worst three to four hours after eating and may be relieved by sitting up or bending forward.
Other conditions that may cause abdominal pain include:
Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Bloating or distension is the sometimes painful swelling of the abdomen caused by excess gas, fluid buildup or constipation. For abdominal pain without distension, see "Abdominal Pain."
Conditions that can cause abdominal bloating, swelling or distension as a major symptom include:
Too much fiber
Irritable bowel syndrome