Abdominal Discomfort


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

  • Belching

  • Bloody stool (blood may be red, black, or tarry in texture)

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Gas

  • Indigestion

  • 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:

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)