Abdominal Pain

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Introduction

What is abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain is any pain or discomfort that occurs between the lower chest and the groin. Commonly referred to as the “belly,” the abdomen consists of many organs, including the stomach, intestines, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, esophagus, and numerous blood vessels. Abdominal pain may be generalized, occurring throughout the abdomen, or it may be present in a small area of the belly.

Abdominal pain is a symptom of a wide variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions, such as indigestion, stress, infection, gallstones, inflammation, intestinal obstruction, peptic ulcer, and cancer. Abdominal pain can also occur as a side effect of medication.

Depending on the cause, abdominal pain can last briefly, such as when it occurs from indigestion due to eating rich food. Abdominal pain can also last for a longer period of time, such as when it is due to chronic pancreatitis, stomach cancer, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Long-term abdominal pain may be continuous or occur sporadically.

Abdominal pain can be described as mild to severe, acute, ongoing, or cramp-like. While most people will experience abdomen pain in their lifetime, it is rarely caused by a serious medical problem.

However, abdominal pain that is associated with vomiting blood, bloody stools, dizziness, abdominal distention, fainting, shortness of breath, or yellowing of the skin (jaundice) can be a sign of a serious, potentially life-threatening condition and should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. If your abdominal pain is persistent or causes you concern, contact a medical professional.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain may accompany other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.

Digestive symptoms that may occur along with abdominal pain

Abdominal pain may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with abdominal pain

Abdominal pain may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, abdominal pain may accompany symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Symptoms that may indicate a serious or life-threatening condition include:

  • Bloody or black stools

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Dizziness

  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Pulsating mass in abdomen

  • Rapid pulse or rapid breathing

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Vomiting blood or black material (resembling coffee grounds)

  • Weakness

  • Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)

Causes

What causes abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain can be from infection, malignancy, inflammation, trauma, obstruction, and other abnormal processes. Relatively mild conditions, such as indigestion and stress, can also cause abdominal pain. Sometimes children say they have a stomachache because they are trying to avoid a stressful or frightening situation such as, trying to miss school to avoid issues with peers or friends. However, it is always important to consider and rule out the possibility of other causes.

Life-threatening conditions such as trauma, an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and a bleeding peptic ulcer can cause abdominal pain and should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Conditions involving other body systems, such as the endocrine, nervous, reproductive, and urinary systems, can also cause abdominal pain.

Gastrointestinal causes of abdominal pain

Abdominal pain may arise from problems in the digestive tract including:

Other causes of abdominal pain

Abdominal pain can also be caused by problems in body systems other than the digestive tract including:

  • Shingles (painful, blistering rash, involving one side of the body, often forming a stripe, that results from a reactivation of the varicella-zoster, or chicken pox, virus)

  • Shingles

  • Toxic exposures (ingestion of toxic chemicals or poisonous plants, poisonous insect bites)

  • Urinary tract infection

Life-threatening causes of abdominal pain

In some cases, abdominal pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

What are the potential complications of abdominal pain?

Over time, abdominal pain can lead to serious complications including:

  • Dehydration due to a decreased desire to drink fluids

  • Loss of appetite

  • Poor nutrition due to a decreased desire to eat

  • Vitamin deficiencies

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Oct 20
  1. Kuhn M, Campillos M, Letunic I, Jensen LJ, Bork P. A side effect resource to capture phenotypic effects of drugs. Mol Syst Biol. 2010;6:343. Epub 2010 Jan 19.
  2. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
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