Physical pain is a normal bodily reaction that occurs in response to a number of causes, including infection, disease, injury or overexertion. But since our body is not meant to experience pain unless something is wrong, the very experience of it is a signal something abnormal is going on. Thus making the very feeling of pain abnormal, whatever the type, place of occurrence or severity. One of the most common locations for pain is the abdominal area, more commonly referred to as the stomach.
Because of the biological complexity of the abdominal area and the fact that pain can radiate, meaning it can be felt in a place different from the place of origin, the causes behind stomach pain are diverse, to say the least. But wherever it may be felt and whatever form it may take, stomach pain is an abnormal symptom that requires investigation to determine the cause and provide the correct treatment. While most instances of stomach pain are harmless and resolve by themselves or merely require management of symptoms, others may indicate serious pathologies and call for the assistance of a professional.
But even the most harmless of stomach pains can present themselves in such an abnormal form that they become a reason for concern. For example, indigestion can sometimes present itself as severe, burning, nauseating pain in the center part of the abdomen or as intense, burning belly button pain that lasts for hours. It’s quite an abnormal presentation and can lead to it being easily mistaken for appendicitis, pancreatitis or other more serious causes. Unless the sufferer has had previous experiences with certain forms of abnormal stomach pain or somehow intuits the cause, it can be difficult to tell what is the source of the pain or if it’s something serious or not.
Types of stomach pain
According to duration, stomach pain can be:
1) Acute – sudden, moderate to severe in intensity, short-lived pain.
Depending on the cause, it may last anywhere from seconds to minutes and may be episodic, reoccurring every few hours or days for months.
2) Chronic pain – moderate to severe in intensity, long-lasting pain.
Lasts for weeks or months. May be steady or recurrent (occurring repeatedly, at regular or irregular intervals).
According to the type of pain experienced:
1) Pangs – sharp, brief and sudden feelings of pain, concentrating in a specific area that can be fairly easily determined.
2) Stings – small, sharp, piercing, local pains.
3) Spasms – sudden, involuntary muscle contractions that may or may not cause hurt.
4) Cramps – sudden, involuntary muscle contractions causing intense pain.
5) Throbs – pronounced pounding or pulsating type of pain occurring at a steady rhythm.
6) Aches – dull, sustained pain of moderate to severe intensity.
7) Pressure pain – often mild stomach pain felt as pressure, heaviness, compression or tension.
8) Burning pain – experienced as painful heat or burning sensation.
9) Tenderness – pain that is felt only when touching the area.
10) Deep or shallow – felt either at the surface or deeper in the abdominal cavity.
According to the location where stomach pain may originate:
1) Lower abdominal pain – felt in the lower part of the abdomen, below the bellybutton.
2) Upper abdominal pain – felt in the upper part of the abdomen, above the bellybutton; may include the chest area.
And the more location-specific pain areas:
3) Lower right quadrant – occurs in the lower abdomen, on the right side.
4) Lower left quadrant – occurs in the lower abdomen, on the left side.
5) Upper right quadrant – occurs in the upper part of the abdomen, on the right side.
6) Upper left quadrant – occurs in the lower part of the abdomen, on the left side.
7) Epigastric – pain in the upper-middle part of the abdomen.
8) Belly button pain.
9) Abdominal pain whose location cannot be pinpointed with precision – general, diffuse or spread out.
10) Lower back pain – pain originates in the abdominal area, but radiates to the back.
And the more specific:
11) Left lower back pain – felt in the lower back, on the left side only.
12) Right lower back pain – felt in the lower back, on the right side only.
13) Referred pain – pain originating in areas other than the abdomen (example: lungs, heart, spine), but felt as if it were in the abdominal area.
What causes stomach pain?
Some stomach pains are more common than others and easily identified, like in the case of heartburn or indigestion pain. Others may be less common or have an abnormal presentation in which case identifying the underlying cause is difficult and it becomes imperative to seek medical assistance. Here are some fairly common types of stomach pain and what they could mean:
1) Burning pain in the stomach after eating. If it’s experienced infrequently and it can be observed it results from eating certain foods or eating too much, it may just be indigestion. The pain can be felt around the belly button, in the upper right quadrant or upper middle part of the abdomen. But a frequent or regular stomach ache after eating, occurring irrespective of the choice of food or intake, may indicate more serious underlying causes (example: tumors) and requires immediate medical attention.
2) Right side pain and burping after eating. If the pain is felt in the upper part of the abdomen, on the right side only and there is burping, there may be air trapped in the colon. When air is trapped in the colon, it creates tension which results in pain. As the air is eliminated, burping or gas may occur. Fiber-rich foods such as beans or almonds, cabbage family foods containing natural sulfur compounds or pickled fruits and vegetables cause fermentation which, in turn, causes stomach air and pains.
3) Dull stomach pain in upper right side. Dull pain located in the upper right side of the abdominal cavity, also called the upper right quadrant, may indicate liver or gallbladder problems. If the pain is frequent, regular or more likely to occur after eating certain foods such as fried and fatty foods, the source is either the liver or the gallbladder. If the pain is caused by liver problems, other symptoms are also likely present (example: jaundice, tiredness, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting).
4) Dull pain on the right side. If what you’re experiencing is just a dull pain on the right side of the abdomen or pain in the form of tension, heaviness or pressure in the area, a common cause to consider is constipation. If it’s really constipation, the pain should go away by itself as soon as you have a bowel movement. If it continues even after a bowel movement or gets worse, if you develop other symptoms such as fever, sweating, nausea or vomiting or don’t feel like eating, appendicitis (inflammation of the appendix) may be considered.
4) Stomach pain that gets better after eating. If it’s an occasional occurrence, it may just be hunger pains. If you know you haven’t eaten for a while and you are experiencing either a dull stomach pain or moderately intense stomach cramps in the middle upper part of the abdomen and your stomach is also making noises (growling for example), then it might just be you have gone too long without eating and you should consider having some food.
If you are experiencing frequent stomach pain in the middle upper part of the abdomen or around the belly button and the pain occurs regularly, usually before eating and appears to get better after eating, potential causes may include gastritis or an ulcer. The pain may be characterized as dull or burning and it can be so severe it wakes you up at night.
5) Burning pain felt around or above belly button. If it’s occasional, it could indicate indigestion. The pain may be moderate or severe and occur after eating, especially heavy, fatty, highly processed or heavily seasoned foods. But if it’s a regular occurrence, you may be looking at gastritis or an ulcer. If the pain gets worse or you develop other symptoms (fever, sweats, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite), it could indicate appendicitis.
6) Sharp stomach pains that come and go. I used to experience this type of stomach pain when I would wait too long between meals. Sometimes, instead of sharp stomach pains that would come and go, I would experience moderately intense stomach cramps. The pain seemed to be located around or above the belly button or in the upper middle part of the abdomen or the center of the stomach. It would go away in half an hour after eating, but it was an infrequent occurrence. But if it’s a frequent occurrence or the pain does not get better with eating, it’s best to have the situation investigated by a medical professional.
7) Stomach pain before passing a stool. Most likely constipation. If that’s the case, the pain should go away after passing a stool. The pain may be felt as cramps, dull pain, heaviness, pressure, tension and may be worse when sitting or lying. The pain can occur in the lower abdominal area or radiate to the lower back. If stools are hard, dry, compacted or pebble-like, it’s important to drink more fluids and eat more vegetables and high-fiber foods (almonds, kiwifruit, sunflower seeds, apples with skin etc.). If stools are loose, then it’s diarrhea and it should be addressed accordingly: dietary changes, meaning eating bland, absorbent foods, and medication, if needed.
8) Pain in lower left abdomen. If it feels like pressure, tension, heaviness, it may be you are constipated. The pain should go away after a bowel movement (if it’s really constipation, it’s also likely you are going to pass a dry, hard, compacted stool). If you have not been able to have a bowel movement in days or over a week, it may be because the constipation is chronic or there stool matter has become compacted and possibly trapped somewhere along the intestinal tract. If you’ve had no bowel movements for about a week, see your doctor.
What could also cause pain in the lower left abdomen is indigestion or trapped air, but the pain should be mild at most and resolve itself quickly. If there is a bulge in the area, it’s likely a hernia. If there is also diarrhea, potential causes include inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease, colitis, gastroenteritis.
9) Severe and sudden stomach pain. If it feels debilitating, but resolves quickly and does not reoccur, it’s possible it’s colic. It may be experienced in any part of the abdomen, but more likely in the center area. If there are other symptoms present, notably nausea, vomiting, fever, lack of appetite, see a doctor immediately.
10) Lower stomach pain and frequent urination. The most likely causes are an urinary tract infection or bladder stones. The pain present itself as stings, pangs or sharp, strong, painful cramps. Additional symptoms such as itching or burning sensation during urination or unusually frequent but reduced urine output also indicate an urinary tract infection. It’s recommended to see a doctor because antibiotic treatment may be necessary. Fever, nausea, vomiting, chills and a red-brown urine color indicating the presence of blood are also possible symptoms and require medical attention.
11) Lower back pain. Lower back pain does not necessarily originate in the back, but in the kidneys, for example. See if it’s kidney pain or back pain? Look out for symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, chills, fever as these are best investigated by a medical professional. Lower back pain in the form of cramps or dull, pressure-like pain could be caused by constipation and should go away after passing a bowel movement. Other causes include kidney infection, kidney stone or even spleen problems.
Any type of pain can feel abnormal or take on abnormal symptoms. When it comes to stomach pain – or more accurately, abdominal pain – the symptoms to look out for include: fever, sweating, chills, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, presence of blood in urine or stools (pink, red, brown or black tarry stools), gradual worsening of the pain or severe pain with a sudden onset, unintentional weight loss. These symptoms are best investigated by a medical professional as soon as possible to exclude more serious underlying conditions and offer the best possible course of treatment.
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