What is postprandial pain?
Postprandial pain is pain after eating. This includes postprandial epigastric pain—or pain in the stomach after eating—and abdominal pain after eating. People may describe epigastric pain as occurring in the upper abdomen, in the rib area. Abdominal pain is generally lower, in the belly area. The pain can be mild and achy or severe and sharp, depending on the cause. The pain can also be localized to a specific area or be widespread throughout the upper and lower abdomen. Other descriptors can include gripping, tightening, squeezing and radiating.
Pain after eating can originate from several different organs in the chest or abdomen. The stomach and esophagus are common sources of pain after eating. But this type of pain can start in other components of the digestive system. This includes the intestines, appendix, pancreas, gallbladder or liver.
Problems with other organs in the chest and abdomen can sometimes cause pain after eating. This includes the female reproductive tract. However, pain after eating can also originate from the heart and be a sign of a potential heart attack.
Some postprandial pain causes aren’t serious reasons to worry. However, pain after eating can be a sign of more urgent problems. See your doctor promptly if pain after eating becomes a consistent problem. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have stomach or abdominal pain that is severe or accompanies potentially serious symptoms including:
- Abdominal swelling or tenderness to the touch
- Dark urine or yellowing of the eyes or skin
- Inability to eat or drink
- Persistent nausea and vomiting or inability to keep down food or liquid
- Vomiting blood or dark, coffee ground-like material
What other symptoms might occur with postprandial pain or pain after eating?
Depending on the underlying cause, postprandial pain can occur with other symptoms.
Digestive-related symptoms that may occur along with postprandial pain
Postprandial pain may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:
- Bloating, gas and belching
- Feeling of fullness or general discomfort in the stomach or abdomen
- Heartburn or sour stomach
- Mild nausea or loss of appetite
Other symptoms that may occur along with postprandial pain
Other symptoms can occur outside the digestive tract along with postprandial pain including:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Fever and malaise
- Irregular menstrual periods, missed menstrual periods, or menstrual cramping
- Rash or itching
Symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening or serious condition
Pain after eating may be a sign of something more serious if it happens repeatedly or becomes a chronic problem. See your doctor promptly if pain after eating occurs on a regular basis.
In some cases, postprandial pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:
- Chest pain, pressure or squeezing or pain that radiates to the arm, shoulder, neck or jaw
- Rapid heart rate or heart palpitations
- Severe abdominal pain, abdominal rigidity, or trauma to the abdomen
- Severe or persistent nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath, rapid breathing, or difficulty breathing
- Vomiting blood or material resembling coffee grounds
What causes pain after eating?
Postprandial pain often originates in the digestive, or gastrointestinal, tract. However, other organs in the chest and abdomen can be responsible for abdominal pain and pain after eating.
Gastrointestinal causes of pain after eating
Postprandial pain commonly arises from problems in the digestive tract including:
- Celiac disease, which is a hereditary immune reaction to ingesting gluten that is more serious than a gluten sensitivity
- Gallstones and gallbladder disease
- Gastritis, which is irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining
- IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- Indigestion, heartburn and overeating
- Peptic ulcer disease
Other causes of pain after eating
Although less common, postprandial pain can also be caused by problems in body systems other than the digestive tract including:
- Endometriosis, which is growth of tissue resembling the lining of the uterus in areas outside the uterus
- Hiatal hernia, which is a weakness in the diaphragm muscle that lets the top of the stomach slip up through it
- Thyroid problems
Serious or life-threatening causes of pain after eating
In some cases, postprandial pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition including:
- Abdominal abscess
- Acute pancreatitis or gallstones
- Heart attack
- Intestinal blockage or twisting
- Perforation in the digestive tract, which can lead to peritonitis—a life-threatening infection
How is postprandial pain or pain after eating treated?
Treatment for postprandial pain depends on the underlying cause. Common gastrointestinal conditions, such as
indigestion, heartburn and overeating, can be treated with over-the-counter medicines, lifestyle changes, and modifying eating habits.
Treatment of chronic gastrointestinal conditions, such as GERD, inflammatory bowel syndrome, pancreatitis, or hiatal hernia, will most likely involve a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and perhaps surgery at some point. Acute conditions, such as appendicitis, intestinal blockage, or gallstones, may involve hospital care and possibly surgery to repair or remove the diseased tissue.
Once your doctor determines the cause of your pain, together you can determine a treatment plan to address it.
What are the potential complications of postprandial pain or pain after eating?
Because postprandial pain can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in grave complications, permanent damage, and even death. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Gastrointestinal rupture or hemorrhage
- Organ failure or dysfunction
- Ruptured appendix
- Spread of cancer or infection