Having a tummy ache is one of the most common human medical experiences. Whether from eating too much junk food as a kid (or as an adult) or acquiring some kind of virus, we all know what it’s like to suddenly be racked with stomach problems. It’s also pretty universally understood that not all stomach pain is the same. By considering the type and location and severity of the pain, and by noting any accompanying symptoms, it’s possible to narrow down the possible causes. Below are 8 different kinds of stomach pain that range from relatively common to relatively rare:
1. Sharp jabbing pain in the upper right abdomen
Possible explanation: gallstones
What is it: The gallbladder stores some of the bile that is used in digestion; it combines with digestive juices from the liver and pancreas to break down the partially digested food that has left the stomach and entered the small intestine. The most frequent cause of gallstones is when the liver excretes excess cholesterol (often the result of unhealthy diet habits); that excess cholesterol can collect in the gallbladder and harden into gallstones. The gallbladder sits next to the liver, and it is in this location in the upper right abdomen that sharp pain can be felt when the body attempts to pass the gallstones through the narrow biliary duct.
Treatment: Some people have gallstones without any symptoms at all, but when pain begins, the condition needs to be treated soon. Depending on the severity of the condition, treatments range from oral medication to dissolve the stones to surgery to remove the gallbladder.
2. Uncomfortable bloating
Possible explanation: excess gas
What is it: The digestive process is essentially a series of chemical reactions that happen along the digestive tract. Some of these reactions, particularly when the body is breaking down some foods like leafy green vegetables and beans, resulting in gas being released. Eating too many gas-causing foods can lead to an overabundance of gas in the digestive tract that creates a feeling of bloating. This can also happen from drinking a lot of carbonated beverages or swallowing too much air when eating quickly.
Treatment: Excess gas is, of course, a common and non-serious condition that usually resolves itself over time, but it can also be remedied by the use of over-the-counter drugs like Gas-X. For those who are especially prone to gas, it can be prevented by modifying the diet to limit leafy green vegetables, carbonated beverages, beans, or sorbitol (an artificial sweetener).
3. Upper stomach pain or burning sensation
Possible explanation: peptic ulcer
What is it: Peptic ulcers occur when damage to the lining of the stomach results in painful sores. The stomach is normally coated with a layer of thick mucus that serves as a barrier between the lining itself and the caustic digestive juices. When the mucus barrier is compromised, which can happen as a result of infection, heavy drinking, smoking, aspirin, or a variety of other digestive illnesses, the digestive juices can actually eat away at the stomach lining. The resulting sores cause stomach pain and even potentially bleeding.
Treatment: Treatment depends on the underlying cause, but most treatment options focus on neutralizing or reducing stomach acid enough so that the sores can heal. In the case of infection, antibiotics may also be used.
4. Sharp pain in the lower right side of the abdomen
Possible explanation: appendicitis
What is it: Once universally believed to be a vestigial organ, the appendix is now thought to play a role in maintaining a healthy balance of gut flora. The appendix can sometimes become inflamed, either because of infection or a blockage in its hollow chamber, and bacteria can build up inside. If it bursts, the bacteria causing the inflammation is released into the abdominal cavity, causing a variety of potential complications. Pain in the lower right side of the abdomen, along with other possible symptoms such as nausea and fever, is a telltale sign of acute appendicitis.
Treatment: Because of the danger related to the appendix bursting, treatment is necessary as soon after the onset of the symptoms as possible. In some cases, antibiotics can be effective in treating the condition, but the majority of the time an appendectomy (removal of the appendix) is necessary.
5. General abdominal pain with diarrhea
Possible explanation: gastroenteritis
What is it: In simplest terms, gastroenteritis is inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, typically involving the stomach and/or small intestine. Most of the time gastroenteritis (also referred to as infectious diarrhea) is caused by a virus; norovirus is one example of a common cause. The viral infection causes the inflammation, and that, in turn, causes diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sometimes vomiting.
Treatment: As a generally non-serious condition, gastroenteritis is often treated by focusing on managing diarrhea and any other symptoms. A central aspect of this treatment is counteracting the dehydration that often accompanies the infection by pushing fluids. In the past, doctors recommended diet changes such as the “BRAT” diet, but this is no longer the generally accepted practice.
6. General abdominal pain with bloating
Possible explanation: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
What is it: As a ‘syndrome,’ IBS refers to a group of symptoms that have been identified; in addition to abdominal pain and bloating, many people also experience changes in bowel habits like constipation and diarrhea. It is not well known what causes IBS, but it may be related to genetics, food sensitivity, stress, or an infection.
Treatment: There is no cure for IBS at this time, so treatment revolves around managing whatever symptoms are present. Medications to treat diarrhea and constipation can be supplemented by some changes to diet; one highly recommended regimen is a low-FODMAP diet, which refers to foods that contain certain fermentable components.
7. Cramping or pain with bloody diarrhea
Possible explanation: ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
What is it: Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are both examples of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that are differentiated by the part of the digestive tract that they affect. The cause of IBD is understood to be a complex interaction between genetic and lifestyle factors. Both diseases involve inflammation of respective parts of the digestive tract that cause numerous symptoms, including intestinal bleeding and associated abdominal pain.
Treatment: As with IBS, there is currently no cure for either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, so treatment is focused on managing the symptoms and long term quality of life. Usually, medication is chosen to reduce inflammation and manage symptoms. In severe cases, surgery to remove part or all the colon may be necessary in order to bring relief.
8. Full body discomfort or malaise with diarrhea or constipation
Possible explanation: lactose intolerance
What is it: Lactose is a component of milk-based products that requires an enzyme called lactase in order to be digested. In many people, this enzyme stops being produced in sufficient quantities (usually as a result of aging) and the lactose gets passed to the large intestine. Once there, it promotes the growth and activity of some gut bacteria that in turn cause a variety of unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
Treatment: There is no cure for the gradual lessening of lactase production, but the condition can be mitigated by avoiding milk-based products or by taking lactase supplements that aid in the digestion of lactose.
Gastroenterologist Appointment Some reasons for your stomach pain are no big deal at all, and they’ll usually resolve on their own. But some can indicate a deeper or potentially more dangerous problem. If you have been having stomach pain that lingers, it may be time to talk with a gastroenterologist. Contact Carolina Digestive today to make an appointment and find some much-needed relief.