What is Abdominal Pain?
Abdominal pain explained by Denver, Golden, Aurora, Boulder, Broomfield, Jefferson, and Littleton Colorado’s top pain doctors
Abdominal pain is incredibly common and can be characterized as pain or discomfort felt in the abdominal region, which is the area located between the chest and the pelvis. Also described as a “stomach ache,” “belly ache,” or “tummy ache,” abdominal pain is not related to any one specific condition and can be associated with a wide range of underlying causes. As such, the symptoms of abdominal pain can vary widely and diagnosing the underlying cause of abdominal pain can sometimes be difficult.
Individuals suffering from abdominal pain may describe that their discomfort is very mild, and can come and go in waves, while others may report that their abdominal pain is severe and unrelenting. Some individuals may even experience pain that causes them to vomit. Abdominal pain can also be associated with difficulty sleeping, as individuals may not be able to find a comfortable position or report that their pain worsens at night. Abdominal pain that has persisted for longer than twelve weeks is considered chronic in nature.
Most instances of abdominal pain are harmless and non-life threatening; however, some cases of abdominal pain may be the result of a serious condition that requires immediate attention. Patients should consult their doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms in conjunction with abdominal pain:
- Vomiting lasting three days or more
- Constipation, particularly when accompanied by vomiting
- Painful urination
- Infrequent urination
- Abdominal tenderness
- Injury to the abdominal region
- Pain that persists for several days or more
More serious symptoms that accompany abdominal pain and require immediate hospital attention include:
- Severe pain that lasts several days
- Pain that radiates to the chest, neck, or shoulders
- Vomiting blood
- Blood in urine
- Bloody stools
- Shortness of breath
Further, women who are pregnant and experience severe abdominal pain should call their doctor or visit the emergency right away.
Causes of Abdominal Pain
Abdominal pain is a very common condition that most individuals will experience at some point in their lives. Common sources for abdominal pain may include cramping associated with menstruation, constipation, a pulled muscle, indigestion, a stomach virus, appendicitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, food poisoning, an allergic reaction, urinary tract infection, gas, a sensitivity or intolerance for lactose, an ulcer, pelvic inflammatory disease, hernia, gallstones, kidney stones, or Crohn’s disease.
When attempting to identify the source of abdominal pain, physicians may focus on the location of the pain or discomfort. For instance, pain occurring as the result of appendicitis generally occurs in the middle of the abdomen and toward the right. In addition, your physician will ask you specific questions about your specific symptoms of pain, including the onset of the pain episode (i.e., How did the pain begin? Did it have a sudden onset?). For instance, pain associated with a condition called biliary colic is generally described as occurring suddenly as the result of a gallstone blocking the cystic duct.
Your doctor may also ask about the pattern of pain (i.e., Has the pain followed any predictable pattern? For example, does it worsen after eating a particular type of food? Does it come in predictable waves?), the duration of the pain (i.e., Does the pain come and go? Does it occur every day? Is it better when at home?), and any other factors that may affect the pain (i.e., Has anything helped relieve the pain? Is it worse when lying down?). Other things that your physician will want to consider when diagnosing abdominal pain are your history, any relevant family history, and any relevant precipitating events.
Treatment for Abdominal Pain
Treatment options available for providing relief from abdominal pain will vary depending on the patient’s specific symptoms. While physicians make every effort to ensure a proper diagnosis prior to beginning treatment, in some cases, the actual source of the pain may not be identified. Indeed, abdominal pain is a relatively common condition. Almost everyone in his or her lifetime will experience an episode of abdominal pain that resolves on its own, without intervention or surgery. For these minor cases of abdominal pain, that are not severe or debilitation, it is recommended that individuals attempt at-home treatments first for managing their pain. These more conservative forms of treating abdominal pain include drinking plenty of water, avoiding caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, applying a heating pad to the area, avoiding foods that are likely to cause an upset stomach (e.g., greasy, spicy, or highly acidic or fatty foods), and taking an over-the-counter antacid or pain reliever.
It is recommended that individuals with abdominal pain avoid painkillers with anti-inflammatory properties, as these tend to exacerbate symptoms of abdominal pain. It is best to consult with your doctor prior to taking aspirin or ibuprofen. Individuals with abdominal pain that may be the result of a condition affecting liver function are strongly advised to avoid acetaminophen (Tylenol). In more severe cases of abdominal pain, where a more serious underlying condition exists, surgery may be the only treatment option available.
Individuals with more chronic abdominal pain, or pain that has persisted for longer than three months, may not experience pain relief from the more conservative treatments. In these instances, other interventional methods for providing relief from pain may be recommended. In fact, non-surgical nerve blocks are available for patients with chronic abdominal pain. This procedure, known as the celiac plexus block, can provide patients with significant or even complete relief from abdominal pain. The celiac plexus is a bunch of nerves located behind the stomach. This bundle of nerves is responsible for the transfer of pain information from the abdominal region to the brain. During this procedure, non-surgical techniques are used to anaesthetize the celiac plexus nerve bundle, which then prevents any transmission of pain information to the brain.
Abdominal pain can be quite common. In general, abdominal pain can be described as pain or discomfort located anywhere in the abdomen, between the chest and pelvic region. The specific type of pain or discomfort can range from a sharp stabbing pain with an acute onset, to a dull throbbing discomfort that is longer lasting in duration.
Some individuals describe abdominal pain as constant and unrelenting, while others experience only discrete instances of discomfort. Symptoms of abdominal pain can be associated with a number of underlying causes. The underlying cause of abdominal pain can range from common, non-life threatening conditions, such as cramps or constipation, to more serious conditions that require more immediate care, such as appendicitis. Treatments options available for the relief of abdominal pain are based on the patient’s specific symptoms and diagnosis. Many individuals can achieve immediate and lasting relief from pain following treatment.
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