Nearly everyone experiences occasional belly aches. While some stomach pains may be minor discomforts, others can vary widely in their nature and severity and may require medical attention. Here are five different kinds of stomach pain, potential causes, and when to seek medical care:
1. Gnawing or burning pain in the upper abdomen
Possible cause: peptic ulcers
Peptic ulcers are sores that develop in the inner lining of the stomach or the first part of the small intestine. Often people with ulcers experience a burning pain in the stomach that may improve with meals and is worse at night. Helicobacter pylori infection and the prolonged use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are common causes of peptic ulcers. Treatment may involve antibiotics if there is infection, acid-suppressing medications such as proton pump inhibitors, and lifestyle changes.
2. Right upper abdomen pain that comes and goes
Possible cause: gallstones
Gallstones are hard deposits of bilirubin or cholesterol that can form in your gallbladder. When these stones block the normal flow of bile, they can cause pain on the right side just under the ribcage. This pain is called biliary colic. The pain may be sudden and intense, often occurring after a fatty meal. Surgical removal of the gallbladder is typically the recommended treatment. Seek medical advice if you suffer from this type of pain.
3. Fevers, abdominal cramps, diarrhea vomiting
Possible cause: stomach flu
Stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, is caused by infection from a virus, bacteria, or parasite that affects the stomach and intestines. These infections can be highly contagious and are often transmitted through contaminated food or water. Most viral and bacterial infections resolve on their own after a few days, during which staying hydrated is crucial for recovery. If you have persistent or worsening symptoms after a few days or are unable to tolerate any liquids or foods, you should seek medical advice. Thorough hand washing is essential to prevent the infection from spreading to others.
4. Pain that starts near the belly button and shifts to the right lower abdomen
Possible cause: appendicitis
Appendicitis occurs when the appendix, a small outpouching off of the large intestine, becomes inflamed. Typically pain from appendicitis begins near the belly button and then shifts to the lower right abdomen. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and fever. Appendicitis is an emergency that requires prompt medical care. Once diagnosed, treatment involves surgical removal of the appendix.
5. Abdominal pain, bloating, changes in bowel habits
Possible cause: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain and bloating, associated with changes in your stools – either diarrhea, constipation, or a mix of the two. IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, so if you have persistent symptoms, your primary care physician or gastroenterologist may rule out other causes before diagnosing IBS. The exact cause of the syndrome is not well-understood but involves diet, stress, and changes in your gut microbiome. Treatment of IBS includes dietary changes, regulating stress, as well as medications.
Not all stomach aches are the same and some may signal a medical issue that requires attention. Listen to your body, do not worry alone, and be sure to contact your primary care provider or gastroenterologist with any questions or concerns. We are here to help you maintain your gut health and overall well-being.
For information and to schedule an appointment with Dr. Khan or another gastroenterologist at Emerson Health Gastroenterology, visit emersonhealth.org/gastro or call 978-287-3835.
This article was reviewed by Tanya Khan, MD, Gastroenterologist with Emerson Health Gastroenterology.
Listen to this podcast to learn more about bellyaches: