Everyone experiences abdominal pain from time to time. Other terms used to describe abdominal pain are stomachache, tummy ache, gut ache and bellyache. Abdominal pain can be mild or severe. It may be constant or come and go. Abdominal pain can be short-lived, also called acute. It also may occur over weeks, months or years, also known as chronic.
Call your health care provider right away if you have abdominal pain so severe that you can’t move without causing more pain. Also call if you can’t sit still or find a comfortable position.
Abdominal pain can have many causes. The most common causes usually aren’t serious, such as gas pains, indigestion or a pulled muscle. Other conditions may need urgent medical attention.
The location and pattern of abdominal pain can provide important clues, but how long it lasts is especially useful when figuring out its cause.
Acute abdominal pain develops and often goes away over a few hours to a few days. Chronic abdominal pain may come and go. This type of pain may be present for weeks to months, or even years. Some chronic conditions cause progressive pain, which steadily gets worse over time.
Conditions that cause acute abdominal pain usually happen at the same time as other symptoms that develop over hours to days. Causes can range from minor conditions that go away without any treatment to serious medical emergencies, including:
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm
- Cholangitis, which is inflammation of the bile duct.
- Cystitis (bladder inflammation)
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Duodenitis, which is inflammation of the top part of the small intestine.
- Ectopic pregnancy (in which the fertilized egg implants and grows outside of the uterus, such as in a fallopian tube)
- Fecal impaction, which is hardened stool that can’t be passed.
- Heart attack
- Intestinal obstruction
- Intussusception (in children)
- Kidney infection (also called pyelonephritis)
- Kidney stones (hard objects that form due to chemicals in urine)
- Liver abscess, a pus-filled pocket in the liver.
- Mesenteric ischemia (decreased blood flow to the intestines)
- Mesenteric lymphadenitis (swollen lymph nodes in the folds of membrane that hold the abdominal organs in place)
- Mesenteric thrombosis, a blood clot in a vein carrying blood away from your intestines.
- Pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue around the heart)
- Peritonitis (infection of the abdominal lining)
- Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs)
- Pneumonia — an infection in one or both lungs.
- Pulmonary infarction, which is loss of blood flow to the lungs.
- Ruptured spleen
- Salpingitis, which is inflammation of the fallopian tubes.
- Sclerosing mesenteritis
- Spleen infection
- Splenic abscess, which is a pus-filled pocket in the spleen.
- Torn colon.
- Urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
Chronic (intermittent, or episodic)
The specific cause of chronic abdominal pain is often difficult to determine. Symptoms may range from mild to severe, coming and going but not necessarily getting worse over time. Conditions that may cause chronic abdominal pain include:
- Angina (reduced blood flow to the heart)
- Celiac disease
- Functional dyspepsia
- Gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Hiatal hernia
- Inguinal hernia
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Mittelschmerz (ovulation pain)
- Ovarian cysts
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Peptic ulcer
- Sickle cell anemia
- Strained or pulled abdominal muscle.
- Ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease)
Abdominal pain that steadily worsens over time is usually serious. This pain often leads to the development of other symptoms. Causes of progressive abdominal pain include:
- Crohn’s disease
- Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly)
- Gallbladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Lead poisoning
- Liver cancer
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Pancreatic cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Tubo-ovarian abscess, which is a pus-filled pocket involving a fallopian tube and an ovary.
- Uremia (buildup of waste products in your blood)
When to see a doctor
Call 911 or emergency medical assistance
Seek help if your abdominal pain is severe and is associated with:
- Trauma, such as an accident or injury.
- Pressure or pain in your chest.
Seek immediate medical attention
Have someone drive you to urgent care or the emergency room if you have:
- Severe pain.
- Bloody stools.
- Persistent nausea and vomiting.
- Weight loss.
- Skin that appears discolored.
- Severe tenderness when you touch your abdomen.
- Swelling of the abdomen.
Schedule a doctor’s visit
Make an appointment with your health care provider if your abdominal pain worries you or lasts more than a few days.
In the meantime, find ways to ease your pain. For instance, eat smaller meals if your pain is accompanied by indigestion and drink enough fluids. Avoid taking nonprescription pain relievers or laxatives unless directed by your health care provider.