Key Points about Abdominal Pain

  • Abdominal pain, or a stomachache, is a pain experienced below the rib cage and above the pelvis.
  • This pain can be a symptom of a range of underlying conditions.  
  • Common causes of abdominal pain include infection, stress, and diseases of the digestive system. 
  • Call your doctor if your abdominal pain is unbearable or does not resolve on its own. 

Overview

Abdominal pain, or a stomachache, is a pain usually experienced below the rib cage and above the pelvis, and can feel dull, achy, sharp or crampy. Abdominal pain can have a variety of causes. Your doctor can help identify the cause of your abdominal pain and provide treatment accordingly. 

Abdominal pain causes

Causes of abdominal pain range from harmless to serious, and include:

  • Constipation, diarrhea or gas
  • Overeating
  • Stress
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Stomach flu or infection
  • Inflammation
  • Heartburn

Diseases of the digestive system can also cause abdominal pain. These conditions include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Gastrointestinal reflux disease (GIRD)

Causes of extreme stomach pain can include:

  • Gallbladder stones
  • Organ rupture, such as a bursting appendix
  • Kidney stones
  • Kidney infection

Abdominal pain risk factors

Having any of the conditions above puts you at an increased risk of experiencing abdominal pain. 

Abdominal pain symptoms

Abdominal pain may be generalized throughout the stomach area or may be localized to one spot. It may feel cramp-like or feel more like a muscle spasm. 

The area and nature of your abdominal pain can be a hint as to the underlying cause. 

Abdominal pain diagnosis

When identifying the cause of your abdominal pain, your doctor will conduct a physical examination and will order tests based on the location and type of abdominal pain, as well as any additional symptoms. 

To view internal abdominal structures in detail, your doctor may order imaging tests such as:

  • MRI scans
  • Ultrasounds
  • X-rays

You may also be given tests such as:

  • Colonoscopy — to look inside the large and small intestine
  • Endoscopy — to detect abnormalities and inflammation in the GI tract
  • Upper GI — an X-ray that examines for abnormalities in the stomach by using contrast dye

Your doctor may also collect blood, urine, and stool samples to check for viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections. 

Abdominal pain treatment

Treatment for abdominal pain depends on its cause. Your doctor will treat any underlying condition that is causing the pain and may prescribe medication to alleviate symptoms. 

When to seek care

Seek medical care immediately if you have:

  • A rigid abdomen
  • A fever over 101 F
  • Bloody diarrhea or vomit
  • Unbearable pain
  • An inability to pass stool, urine, or gas
  • Severe abdominal pain following an acute injury
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling or severe tenderness in the abdomen
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal pain while pregnant or breastfeeding

Next Steps

Your doctor may recommend over the counter or prescription medications to mitigate symptoms of mild to moderate abdominal pain.