Remember that time the egg salad didn't taste quite right, but you were hungry and ate it anyway? How about when your craving for cheesecake overrode the punishment you knew your lactose intolerance would inflict? You expect stomach distress in situations like these, but at other times abdominal pain can come out of nowhere. Sometimes it's really stabbing or severe, or it lasts for so long that you know it's not simply a matter of eating something that didn't agree with you.
Digestive system issues account for 41 million visits to doctors' offices and emergency departments yearly, according to the (CDC). The severity of the pain, its location within your abdominal area, and accompanying symptoms may provide clues to the origin of the pain — and whether or not you should seek help immediately. These are the most common signs that indicate your stomach pain may require more than an over-the-counter remedy.
Knife-like, stabbing pain that wraps around the lower stomach area and is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever and chills could be a sign of kidney stones, Dr. Glatter says. If that's the case, get to your doctor as soon as possible. An ultrasound or a CT scan will be used to diagnose the stone, and NSAIDs provide pain relief, he adds. Otherwise, rescue narcotics (potent, immediate-relief drugs) may be required to relieve continued pain, and alpha blockers (medication used to relax blood vessels and increase blood flow) may be helpful in allowing larger stones to pass.
A sudden pain in the lower part of the abdomen, especially if it's accompanied by a fever, may be a , Dr. Arthur says. This pain often begins around the belly button area and moves to the lower abdomen, gets worse with time, and could also cause vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.
If you experience these symptoms and the pain is persistent, it comes on out-of-nowhere, or it lasts for several hours, Dr. Arthur says to get to an emergency room immediately. Appendicitis often requires surgery, and if left untreated a ruptured appendix can be deadly.
If you develop an aching or stabbing pain, or feel pressure in the upper abdominal area just under the ribs, this may indicate a heart-related problem, says Kristine Arthur, M.D., internist at . "This is particularly true if the pain persists or you have other symptoms, like shortness of breath."
Many people blame these symptoms on heartburn or indigestion, and while that could be the case, Dr. Arthur says that anyone with risk factors, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, should see a doctor as soon as possible to rule out something more serious.
If you've hit the drive-thru for a high-fat meal and shortly after find yourself in extreme pain that doesn't dissipate, it could be a sign of a gallbladder attack, says Hardeep Singh, M.D., a gastroenterologist at . The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped sac that sits underneath your liver, and its main function is to store bile and pass it along to the small intestine, where fat gets digested. When the gallbladder becomes inflamed — usually due to gallstones blocking the duct that leads to the small intestine, thus causing bile to build up — it can lead to .
If you're experiencing bloat and either diarrhea or constipation with lower abdominal cramps, that could be a sign of , or IBS, Dr. Singh says. The chronic condition affects 25 to 45 million people in the U.S. population, according to the . While it can develop at any age, most are under 50 years old, and about 2 of every 3 IBS sufferers are female.
When you experience stomach pain symptoms associated with IBS, Dr. Singh says the best course of action is to turn to remedies that will immediately help relieve your pain. IBS can also be controlled long-term by managing your diet and stress in a healthy manner, though your doctor may also recommend medication and counseling.
In older patients, vague upper- and mid-abdominal pain that occurs with nausea and burping could indicate a heart attack, says Robert Glatter, M.D., national spokesman for the (ACEP). Vomiting that also brings on back or jaw pain, and feeling short of breath could also signal a life-threatening emergency, he adds.
When mid-abdominal pain occurs suddenly — especially in people with a history of or in those who take excessive amounts of aspirin or NSAIDs — it could indicate a perforation has happened in your stomach, Dr. Glatter says.
Perforations are considered a surgical emergency because if they're not taken care of right away, the presence of free air and gastric contents can lead to a serious condition known as , which is when a bacterial or fungal infection causes inflammation of the peritoneum, a silk-like membrane that covers the organs in your abdomen, Dr. Glatter says. "This may lead to as a result of contamination in the abdominal cavity," he explains. Septic shock requires surgery to seal the leak, and if it's not done fast enough, your organs may begin to shut down and it could ultimately be fatal.
Abdominal pain in the left lower area of the abdomen may signify , small pockets in the colon that can become obstructed and perforate, Dr. Glatter says. Luckily, a trip to urgent care may be all you need, as traditional treatment includes antibiotics and stool softeners to reduce the risk of abscess formation, he explains. suggests that antibiotics may not actually be required though, so Dr. Glatter says your doctor may try simple pain meds, like acetaminophen, to see if that's enough before trying more hardcore medications.