Healthgrades Editorial Staff
What is abdominal discomfort?
Abdominal discomfort is an unpleasant or painful sensation in the belly. The digestive tract occupies a large portion of the abdomen and is often the source of abdominal discomfort, although abdominal discomfort can also be due to conditions of the body wall, skin, blood vessels, or urinary tract. Occasionally, conditions of the reproductive organs or the chest can create abdominal discomfort.
Generalized pain may be due to gas, indigestion, or an infection. When more severe, especially if constipation is also occurring, an intestinal obstruction may be present. Disease of or damage to an organ such as the appendix, gall bladder, spleen, or stomach might be the source when pain is more localized. The area may be tender to the touch or, in the case of a ruptured appendix or similar problem, the pain may be severe and the whole abdomen might be rigid.
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Pain can also be intense with conditions such as gallstones or kidney stones. When stones are causing the symptoms, the pain often occurs in waves, with a rapid onset of pain followed by some level of resolution. Pain that is more cramp-like in quality may be due to gas or indigestion. In women, abdominal discomfort may be due to menstrual cramps, endometriosis, or pelvic inflammatory disease.
Persistent, severe, or worsening pain, or pain accompanied by other serious symptoms tends to be the most worrisome.
Abdominal discomfort can be related to a variety of conditions ranging from minor to serious. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for severe pain that comes on suddenly, the inability to have bowel movements, bloody stool, vomiting blood, abdominal rigidity, breathing difficulties, or pain in the neck, chest, shoulders, or between the shoulders. You should also seek immediate care if you have cancer or if you might be pregnant and have the sudden onset of abdominal pain or vaginal bleeding.
If your abdominal discomfort is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care, particularly if you have pain that is worsening instead of improving. Do not eat or drink anything until your symptoms are evaluated. If you have bladder symptoms, fever, decreased appetite, or unexplained weight loss, you should also seek prompt medical care.
What other symptoms might occur with abdominal discomfort?
Abdominal discomfort may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.
Digestive tract symptoms that may occur along with abdominal discomfort
Abdominal discomfort may accompany other symptoms related to the digestive tract including:
Abdominal pain or cramping
Abdominal swelling, distension or bloating
Bloody stool (blood may be red, black, or tarry in texture)
Nausea with or without vomiting
Urgent need to pass stool
Other symptoms that may occur along with abdominal discomfort
Abdominal discomfort may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
Enlarged liver and glands such as the spleen and lymph nodes
Pain during sexual intercourse
Pain, numbness or tingling
Pain or burning with urination
Palpable mass in the abdomen or pelvic area
Unexplained weight loss
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, abdominal discomfort may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
Bleeding while pregnant
Change in level of consciousness or alertness such as passing out or unresponsiveness
Chest pain, chest tightness, chest pressure, or palpitations
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Inability to have bowel movements, especially if accompanied by vomiting
Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
Respiratory or breathing problems such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking
Rigidity of the abdomen
Severe abdominal pain or sharp abdominal pain that comes on suddenly
Trauma to the abdomen
Vomiting blood, rectal bleeding, or bloody stool
What causes abdominal discomfort?
Abdominal discomfort often originates in the digestive tract. It can also be due to disorders of the circulatory system, urinary tract, reproductive system, respiratory system, or the body wall.
Digestive causes of abdominal discomfort
Abdominal discomfort may be caused by digestive conditions including:
Bacterial, parasitic or viral infection of the gastrointestinal tract
Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
Food intolerance such as lactose intolerance (inability to digest lactose, the sugar in dairy products)
Diverticulitis (inflammation of an abnormal pocket in the colon)
Gall bladder disease or stones
Gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Inflammatory bowel disease (includes Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS; digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease)
Liver disease, including hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)
Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Ulcers of the stomach or duodenum (first section of the small intestine)
Other causes of abdominal discomfort
Abdominal discomfort can also be caused by conditions involving other body systems including:
Abdominal or hiatal hernia (weakening in the abdominal wall or diaphragm, through which internal organs can pass)
Cancer of an abdominal or pelvic organ
Endometriosis (condition where tissues resembling the uterine lining grow in other areas of the body)
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID; infection of a woman’s reproductive organs)
Pleurisy (inflammation of the lining around the lungs)
Shingles (painful, blistering rash, often forming a stripe, that results from a reactivation of the varicella-zoster, or chicken pox, virus)
Urinary tract infection
Serious or life-threatening causes of abdominal discomfort
In some cases, abdominal discomfort may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
Aneurysm of the abdominal aorta (life-threatening bulging and weakening of the wall of the abdominal aorta that can burst and cause severe hemorrhage)
Bowel obstruction or perforation
Chemical or heavy metal poisoning
Colonic volvulus (twisting of the colon) or intussusception (telescoping of the intestines into themselves)
Ectopic pregnancy (life-threatening pregnancy growing outside the uterus)
Intestinal ischemia (loss of blood supply to the intestines leading to death of intestinal tissue)
Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
Ovarian or testicular torsion (twisting of the ovary or spermatic cord)
Peritonitis (infection of the lining that surrounds the abdomen)
Significant abdominal, pelvic or testicular trauma
Questions for diagnosing the cause of abdominal discomfort
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your abdominal discomfort including:
When did you first notice your abdominal discomfort?
Where do you feel the discomfort?
How would you describe your discomfort?
Does anything make it go away or make it worse?
Have you had pain like this before?
Do you have any other symptoms?
What medications are you taking?
Is there any possibility you might be pregnant?
What are the potential complications of abdominal discomfort?
Because abdominal discomfort can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. 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:
Bowel infarction (severe injury to an area of the bowel due to decreased blood supply)
Intestinal obstruction and rupture of the intestinal wall
Organ failure or dysfunction
Spread of cancer
Spread of infection
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- Abdominal pain. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003120.htm.
- Abdominal pain syndrome. American College of Gastroenterology. http://www.acg.gi.org/patients/gihealth/aps.asp.
- Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.