What's Causing Your Stomach Pain

How to tell the dif­fer­ence between five of the most com­mon caus­es of stom­ach pain

Regard­less of its cause, stom­ach pain can be both uncom­fort­able and unpre­dictable. It may devel­op grad­u­al­ly or can come on sud­den­ly — appear­ing on its own, or accom­pa­nied by oth­er symp­toms. Iden­ti­fy­ing the source of your stom­ach pain is impor­tant in order to deter­mine how to treat it, how­ev­er, that can be eas­i­er said than done. To help, gas­troen­terol­o­gist, Nisha Shah, MD, dis­cuss­es sev­er­al com­mon caus­es of stom­ach pain and tips on how to tell them apart.

Some of the most com­mon caus­es of stom­ach pain include:

Diges­tive issues

Each per­son­’s diges­tive sys­tem is unique and your diet plays a big role in your diges­tive health as well as your bow­el habits. Cer­tain foods and bev­er­ages may irri­tate your diges­tive tract and cause diges­tive issues includ­ing indi­ges­tion, con­sti­pa­tion, food aller­gies or sen­si­tiv­i­ty, gas, heart­burn or acid reflux to devel­op. These diges­tive issues are often accom­pa­nied by uncom­fort­able symp­toms such as abdom­i­nal bloat­ing and pain (usu­al­ly in the upper abdomen). You may also expe­ri­ence changes with your bow­el habits includ­ing con­sti­pa­tion or diar­rhea. To help pin­point food aller­gies or sen­si­tiv­i­ty, it can be help­ful to mon­i­tor (and record) what you con­sume each day and note when you expe­ri­ence symp­toms in order to iden­ti­fy any pat­terns. If you expe­ri­ence heart­burn or acid reflux, you may also want to lim­it your alco­hol and caf­feine intake and avoid spicy foods. Cer­tain lifestyle mod­i­fi­ca­tions can also help pre­vent diges­tion-relat­ed stom­ach pain including:

  • Eat­ing small­er meals more frequently
  • Eat­ing more slowly
  • Exer­cis­ing reg­u­lar­ly — when you are more active, your diges­tive sys­tem is more active as well
  • Stop­ping smoking
  • Get­ting enough rest
  • Increas­ing your fiber intake — adding more fruits, veg­eta­bles and bran cereals
  • Lim­it­ing your intake of high-fat foods
  • Try­ing an elim­i­na­tion diet — this can help you deter­mine what food(s) or beverages(s) you may be sen­si­tive to, so that you can min­i­mize your intake (talk with your doc­tor about a low FODMAP diet)


Infec­tions, includ­ing those caused by bac­te­ria, par­a­sites or virus­es, can cause stom­ach pain. The loca­tion of the pain can vary depend­ing on the organ­ism and is accom­pa­nied by bloat­ing, cramp­ing, nau­sea, diar­rhea and/​or vom­it­ing. If you have a viral infec­tion, com­mon­ly referred to as gas­troen­teri­tis, or the stom­ach bug”, a fever may also devel­op. These infec­tions can occur by com­ing into con­tact with some­one infect­ed with the virus or a con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed sur­face. Bac­te­ria or par­a­sitic infec­tions often involve food or liq­uids that have become con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed when not han­dled prop­er­ly or from poor hygiene includ­ing inad­e­quate hand­wash­ing. Tak­ing pre­cau­tions such as fre­quent and thor­ough hand­wash­ing, keep­ing foods chilled or heat­ed to their rec­om­mend­ed tem­per­a­tures to avoid spoil­ing and avoid­ing con­tact with sick indi­vid­u­als, can reduce your risk of devel­op­ing infec­tion-induced stom­ach pain.


Chron­ic inflam­ma­to­ry con­di­tions such as inflam­ma­to­ry bow­el dis­ease or acute con­di­tions such as diver­ti­c­uli­tis can cause stom­ach pain. The pain is often recur­rent and you may also notice an increase in your fre­quen­cy and urge to have a bow­el move­ment. Over time, this can cause weight loss and ane­mia. If you expe­ri­ence fre­quent con­sti­pa­tion or diar­rhea, talk to your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian to deter­mine the cause. In many cas­es, a com­bi­na­tion of lifestyle mod­i­fi­ca­tions, dietary changes and med­ica­tion can be used to man­age inflam­ma­to­ry con­di­tions and reduce their symptoms.

When one of the organs locat­ed in your abdomen becomes inflamed, it can also cause stom­ach pain. If you have an inflamed organ, such as your appen­dix, gall­blad­der, kid­ney or liv­er, the pain often begins sud­den­ly, can be sharp and is usu­al­ly felt in a spe­cif­ic area of your stom­ach, rather than being wide-spread. If the inflam­ma­tion wors­ens (in some cas­es the organ may even rup­ture), oth­er symp­toms such as fever, nau­sea and/​or vom­it­ing may devel­op as well. If you expe­ri­ence sharp, per­sis­tent pain in your stom­ach, devel­op a fever or begin to vom­it, seek med­ical care right away.

Men­stru­al cramps

Men­stru­al cramps are one of the most com­mon symp­toms women expe­ri­ence dur­ing their month­ly cycle. Hor­mone-relat­ed cramps can also occur dur­ing preg­nan­cy, or can be caused by oth­er female-relat­ed health con­di­tions. Men­stru­al cramps vary for each per­son and may be minor, or can become severe enough to inter­fere with your day-to-day activ­i­ties. Anti-inflam­ma­to­ry med­ica­tions, such as ibupro­fen, are often an effec­tive way to reduce stom­ach pain caused by men­stru­al cramps. Using a heat­ing pad, rest­ing, lim­it­ing your caf­feine and avoid­ing smok­ing or alco­hol can also help. If you expe­ri­ence fre­quent or severe cramp­ing, alert your physi­cian to rule out a more seri­ous under­ly­ing health con­di­tion. Your physi­cian can also rec­om­mend addi­tion­al symp­tom man­age­ment techniques.


An obstruc­tion (block­age) in your intestines can be extreme­ly uncom­fort­able, restrict­ing the pas­sage of foods and liq­uids through your intestines. A block­age can devel­op after under­go­ing an abdom­i­nal or pelvic surgery, from inflam­ma­tion in your intes­tine, a her­nia, stool that has become impact­ed, infect­ed growths with­in your intes­tine (diver­ti­c­uli­tis) or if your colon twists. In addi­tion to pain, you may expe­ri­ence cramp­ing and vis­i­ble swelling in your abdomen, loss of appetite, nau­sea and/​or vom­it­ing. It can also affect your abil­i­ty to pro­duce a bow­el move­ment or pass gas. Over time, if unde­tect­ed or untreat­ed, the blocked por­tion of your intes­tine can die, lead­ing to more seri­ous com­pli­ca­tions. Because of this, it is impor­tant to get prompt med­ical care if you expe­ri­ence severe or wors­en­ing abdom­i­nal pain, bloat­ing and a lack of bow­el movements.

Stom­ach Ulcers

Stom­ach ulcers (also called pep­tic ulcers) are painful sores along the lin­ing of your stom­ach and small intes­tine. An ulcer devel­ops when the lay­er of pro­tec­tive mucus in your stom­ach is weak­ened, allow­ing diges­tive acid to break down your stom­ach lin­ing. Cer­tain med­ica­tions includ­ing non-steroidal anti-inflam­ma­to­ry med­ica­tions (NSAIDs) or bac­te­r­i­al infec­tions can increase your risk of devel­op­ing a stom­ach ulcer. A stom­ach ulcer often caus­es symp­toms such as dull, per­sis­tent stom­ach pain, grad­ual weight loss, a low­ered appetite, bloat­ing, fre­quent burp­ing and heart­burn. Stom­ach ulcers are easy to treat but can become severe if left untreat­ed. For exam­ple, an untreat­ed ulcer may begin to bleed, caus­ing stools to appear dark or tar­ry, or pro­duce dark vom­it that looks sim­i­lar to cof­fee grounds. Bleed­ing ulcers can be life-threat­en­ing so it is impor­tant to con­sult with your doc­tor right away if you have symp­toms of an ulcer.

These are just some of the many caus­es of stom­ach pain. Pay­ing atten­tion to the loca­tion, sen­sa­tion and sever­i­ty of your pain can help you to iden­ti­fy the cause and select the right treat­ment plan. If you expe­ri­ence per­sis­tent or wors­en­ing stom­ach pain, or new symp­toms devel­op, seek prompt med­ical care. For help with recur­rent stom­ach pain, changes with your bow­el habits or oth­er diges­tive issues, sched­ule an appoint­ment with a gas­troen­terol­o­gist. Appoint­ments can be made online or by call­ing 630−717−2600.

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