Definition & Overview

A stomach ache, also called abdominal pain or belly pain, is a common condition. Most, if not everybody, has experienced one or more episodes of stomach aches, which can be caused by a wide variety of conditions. The area below the ribs and above the pelvis contains numerous organs and any one of them could be the cause of the pain. These organs are the small intestines, stomach, colon, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and spleen.

A stomach ache is a symptom of an underlying condition. The condition could be mild, such as gas or indigestion, or it could be serious. For mild conditions, the pain should go away after a short time. If the pain remains for an extended period, the condition could be serious and require emergency medical treatment.

Cause of Condition

Most cases of stomach ache involve the digestive system. Some of the most common causes are appendicitis, diarrhea, food poisoning, bloating, and indigestion. Some other causes are: ulcers, hernia, kidney stones, urinary tract infection, gas, pelvic inflammatory disease, constipation, stomach virus, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, menstrual cramps, endometriosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, crohn’s disease, and lactose intolerance. A heart attack can also display symptoms similar to indigestion.

Key Symptoms

Stomach ache is in itself a symptom, but it can also be accompanied with other symptoms of the underlying condition. These symptoms may include, but not be limited to, fever, dehydration, and a bloody stool. A person may also experience vomiting, unusual urination, painful urination, or breathing difficulties.

Who to see & types of treatment available

When consulting a doctor, the doctor will attempt to pin point the location of the pain and the possible causes. You’ll be asked to describe the intensity of the pain. The pain can be dull or sharp. It can feel like a stabbing or twisting sensation.

Some pains can prevent you from moving. Other types of stomach aches make you restless. For instance, gas can make you restless and search for position that can relieve the pain. On the other hand, menstrual cramps may make it impossible for you to move at all.

In some cases, the intestinal muscles begin to cramp and the causes waves of abdominal pain. If the contractions become vigorous, the pain also intensifies.

The doctor will then need to establish the duration of the pain. Serious conditions, such as obstruction of the bile ducts will produce pain with a constant intensity that can last for 30 minutes to several hours. Appendicitis also causes pain that originates from the stomach and moves down to the lower right abdominal area. This type of pain intensifies, especially when the doctor performs a physical examination to determine the cause.

Once the doctor has pinpointed the location of the pain and has a general idea of what the cause may be, you will need to undergo a series of examinations to determine the exact cause of the condition. The first will normally be a physical examination. This is when the doctor applies varying degrees of pressure to different areas of your stomach.

The doctor will then check if there are any sounds coming from your stomach. The sounds could be caused by gas or obstructions.

You will then need to undergo several laboratory tests, which include a complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis, pregnancy test, pancreatic enzymes, and liver enzymes. The results of these tests will help the doctor diagnose your condition. For instance, an elevated level of white blood cells suggests the presence of an infection. If the red blood cell count is low, it could mean that the intestines are bleeding. Abnormal pancreatic enzyme results could point to pancreatitis.

After the laboratory tests, you’ll likely undergo imaging tests, such as an abdominal x-ray or an ultrasound. Other tests include, CT-scan, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and capsule enteroscopy.

You may also undergo endoscopic procedures so that doctor can accurately diagnose the condition. These procedures include esophagogastroduodenoscopy, colonoscopy, endoscopic ultrasound, and balloon enteroscopy.

If the doctor is still unable to determine the exact cause, you may need to undergo surgical procedures that involve examining the abdominal cavity. This can be performed through a minimally invasive procedure called a laparoscopy or through open surgery.

Once the doctor has determined the exact cause of your condition, you’ll then need to undergo treatment. The treatment can be as simple as taking a few medications to control the pain, to a complex treatment plan, which necessitates hospitalization or surgery.

For example, if the doctor determines that your stomach ache is caused by indigestion or gas, you’ll be prescribed a few medications and be sent home. However, if the doctor determines that your condition is appendicitis, you’ll need to undergo surgery immediately.

It’s important to understand that stomach aches can be a symptom of a more serious condition. Some people may opt to try home remedies before going to a doctor. While home remedies can help relieve the pain, they can also aggravate the condition. If your stomach ache progresses, it’s best to consult a doctor or proceed directly to a hospital’s emergency department for immediate treatment.

References:

  • Ebell MH. Diagnosis of appendicitis: part 1. History and physical examination. Am Fam Physician. 2008;77:828-830.
  • Bundy DG, Byerley JS, Liles EA, Perrin EM, Katznelson J, Rice HE. Does this child have appendicitis? JAMA. 2007;25:438-451.
  • Millham FH. Acute abdominal pain. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 10.
  • Squires RA., Postier RG., Acute abdomen In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 47.
  • Budhram GR, Bengiamin RN., Abdominal pain. In Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2013:chap 27.
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