Abdominal Pain: Causes, Types, and When to See a Doctor

Abdominal pain is considered to be any pain that occurs in the area between your chest and pelvis. The cause can be a temporary condition or a symptom of a more severe disorder associated with your heart. Read on to learn when to seek medical attention.

9 minute read

Last Updated July 30, 2020

Abdominal Pain: Causes, Types, and When to See a Doctor

Any pain that occurs in the area between your chest and pelvis is considered abdominal pain. Pains can result from temporary causes such as a pulled muscle or cramp, and overeating, to more serious causes such as digestive disorders. 

Abdominal pain can be intermittent and can feel like cramps, dull aches, or stabbing pains. Because the cause of abdominal pain can be linked to a serious medical condition, it is important to get medical advice if it does not resolve on its own within a few days. 

Causes of Abdominal Pain

The abdomen contains several important organs that can all be affected by abdominal pain. The intestines, stomach, kidneys, spleen, gallbladder, liver, and pancreas are all situated in this region of the body. 

A problem with one organ can often cause pain in the entire area, making it difficult to identify the exact source of the pain. Infections are the most common cause of acute abdominal pain, but abnormal growths, inflammation, blockages, and digestive disorders can also be the cause. 

Because of the close proximity of the heart to the chest area above the abdomen, problems with the heart can also cause pain to radiate to the abdominal area. Indigestion commonly causes acid reflux and heartburn, which causes pain in the chest. 

Stomach pain, nausea, and indigestion can also be symptoms of heart disease or a heart attack. Women are especially likely to experience these symptoms in association with a heart attack.

Types of Abdominal Pain

The type of abdominal pain experienced will vary according to the cause. The location also varies too. A localized pain in one specific area is often associated with problems of a particular organ. 

♦ Lower abdominal pain: appendix or intestinal blockage

♦ Upper abdominal pain: gallstones, heart attack, hepatitis

♦ Center abdominal pain: digestive disorders, injury, or appendicitis

♦ Lower left abdominal pain: kidney problems, inflammatory bowel disease, or cancer

♦ Lower right abdominal pain: spleen, kidneys, fecal impaction, cancer, or heart attack.

Abdominal pain can also be crampy, which will come and go. This is most commonly associated with diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive issues. Colicky pain indicates a more serious issue, such as kidney stones or gallstones. Sharp pains require immediate treatment.

Conditions Associated with Abdominal Pain

Digestive issues are usually the cause of most cases of abdominal pain, but in some cases, there can be a more serious issue underlying the pain. There are several medical conditions linked to abdominal pain that need treatment, so ignoring prolonged or sharp abdominal pains is not an option.

♦ Heart attack: Some people experience stomach pains before a heart attack, especially women. When combined with shortness of breath and chest pain, abdominal pain should not be ignored.

Stroke: Stroke survivors often report indigestion and stomach pains after a stroke, but abdominal pain can also be a sign of a stroke. A TIA (transient ischemic stroke), in particular, has been associated with stomach pains and vomiting, along with facial muscle changes and slurred speech.

♦ GERD: Gastroesophageal reflux disease causes frequent heartburn as a result of acid repeatedly flowing backward into the esophagus. The pain is typically felt in the upper abdominal area and chest and can be confused with heart pains.

IBD: Inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease cause mass inflammation through the intestines. This causes severe abdominal pain as well as frequent digestive issues, especially during flare-ups.

Infections: Viral and bacterial infections are common causes of abdominal pain and are typically relieved once medications are taken or the virus passes through the digestive tract. 

Kidney stones: The formation and passing of kidney stones can cause widespread abdominal pain, as the kidneys are a central part of the abdominal area. The pain will be sharpest in the lower left side of the abdomen, but it can be felt across the entire area.

Diagnosis of Abdominal Pain

A series of testing is typically done to identify the source of abdominal pain. Your doctor will conduct a physical examination first and discuss your symptoms before ordering tests. The severity and location of the pain will determine the type of testing done. 

Imaging tests are most commonly used, such as MRI scans, ultrasounds, and X-rays, as these allow you to view the organs in detail. In addition to imaging, the following tests may be done:

Endoscopy: to look for inflammation and damage to the esophagus

Upper GI x-ray: uses a contrast dye to look for ulcers, blockages, and inflammation along the digestive tract.

Colonoscopy: to look inside the intestines and colon

Treatment for Abdominal Pain

Treatment for abdominal pain will depend on the cause. Medications can be prescribed to help alleviate pain and other symptoms, and antibiotics can help to clear up bacterial infections. 

Digestive disorders will require medications as well as dietary and lifestyle changes to minimize acid reflux and intestinal inflammation. When the pain is linked to a heart condition, the underlying condition needs to be addressed. This can involve medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as dietary changes to promote heart health.

You can prevent abdominal pain by promoting overall heart and digestive health through the following lifestyle changes:

♦ Eating a balanced and nutritious diet
♦ Staying hydrated
♦ Getting regular physical activity each day
♦ Eating smaller meals through the day
♦ Getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night
♦ Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation

Natural Treatment for Abdominal Pain

Lifestyle changes can help to reduce abdominal pain, especially when the underlying cause is a digestive issue. But, it is important to remember that heart problems can also cause abdominal pain. Abdominal pain is a common symptom of both heart attack and stroke. 

You can reduce the risk of these health conditions by promoting overall heart health with the following natural ingredients:

♦ Niacin: The optimal functioning of your heart is dependent on several factors. Circulation can be impacted by high-fat content in the blood, but niacin has been proven to lower LDL cholesterol levels, thus reducing the risk of arterial plaque formation and risk of stroke. Niacin also possesses anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and protects the arteries and surrounding tissues from inflammation and oxidative damage. 

♦ Chromium: Chromium benefits the heart by reducing the risk of high cholesterol and arterial clogs. Elevated cholesterol in the blood increases plaque formations, which clog the arteries and cause arterial walls to stiffen. This condition is known as atherosclerosis, and it significantly reduces blood flow and increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. When chromium is supplemented in the diet, this risk is reduced. 

♦ Red Yeast Rice: High cholesterol can collect as fatty deposits in the arteries and cause blockages. Not only is circulation obstructed, but the artery walls can become narrow and stiff, which significantly increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke. The active ingredient in red yeast rice is the same as that found in cholesterol-lowering medications, making it a natural way to reduce this risk and promote heart health.

When to See Your Doctor

Mild abdominal pain will usually go away without treatment, but in cases where it is persistent or getting worse, you need to see a doctor. If the pain is associated with chest pain or difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical attention. 

If you notice blood in your stool, swelling of the abdomen, loss of appetite, or prolonged diarrhea or vomiting, then you need to see your doctor right away. It is important to identify the underlying cause right away to prevent serious complications. 

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