What is Abdominal Pain?
Abdominal pain is discomfort that you experience in the abdomen, which is located between the chest and pelvic regions. It may present as crampy, dull, achy or sharp, depending on the cause. Abdominal pain can be caused by many different conditions including inflammation, infection, abnormal growths, obstruction or intestinal disorders.
Different Types of Abdominal Pain
There are different kinds of abdominal pain, which may include localized pain, cramp-like pain or colicky pain. Individuals may also experience other symptoms with their pain such as fever, vomiting or diarrhea.
- Localized pain is contained to one area of the abdomen, and is often the result of an issue in a particular organ.
- Cramp-like pain is often correlated with constipation, bloating or diarrhea. In women, it may also be associated with menstruation or reproductive issues. This type of pain may come and go or resolve on its own.
- Colicky pain can be a symptom of more serious conditions like kidney stones or gall stones and can occur suddenly and severely.
When Should I See a Doctor?
While mild abdominal pain may resolve on its own without treatment, those with more severe pain or ongoing symptoms may need to see a professional.
Listed are seven signs that you should see your GI provider:
- Trouble swallowing (dysphagia): Occurs when the swallowing process is disrupted, which can cause liquid or foods to enter the trachea instead of the esophagus (AKA aspiration). Food can also become stuck in the esophagus.
- Prolonged heartburn: Heartburn occurs when your lower esophageal sphincter allows stomach acid to travel up and into the esophagus, leading to a burning feeling in the area around the heart. If you are experiencing prolonged heartburn symptoms, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- New abdominal pain or bloating: New or prolonged abdominal discomfort can be caused by many factors, including stress, medications, diet, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Be sure to schedule an appointment with your GI provider if your abdominal pain is also accompanied by high fever, diarrhea or vomiting.
- Bloody stool: Bloody stool due to rectal bleeding can be caused by both common and mild GI conditions, as well as severe conditions or cancers. Because it can be difficult to determine the cause of your bleeding at home, be sure to reach out to your GI team.
- Change in bowel habits: While bowel movements may change as you age, if you are experiencing prolonged changes or irregularity in the color, consistency and control of your bowel movements, be sure to see a doctor.
- Unexplained weight loss: Losing a significant amount of weight without trying to can be a cause for concerns. If you have lost more than 5% of weight over a period of 6-12 months, reach out to your GI team, as this may be a sign of a GI condition or cancer.
- A family history of GI cancers: Individuals with a family history of GI cancer have a greater risk of developing it themselves. Be sure to speak with your GI doctor regarding your risk factors, available genetic testing and screening.
Call 911 if your pain is severe or due to trauma or pressure in your chest. If you cannot sit or stand, are experiencing bloody stools, have a high fever, are vomiting or have swelling of the abdomen, seek immediate medical care.
How is Abdominal Pain Treated?
The first step to treating abdominal pain is to diagnose the cause, which will begin with a physical examination. This may involve gently pressing or feeling the abdomen to look for signs of swelling or tenderness. This may be followed by imaging tests such as ultrasounds, X-rays or MRI scans in order to get a better view of the organs and other structures within the abdomen. Other tests that may also be helpful in diagnosis include colonoscopy, endoscopy or upper GI and small bowel series.
Treatment will vary depending on the exact cause of your abdominal pain. Options may include medications, antibiotics, changes in lifestyle behaviors such as diet, pain management or surgery.
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