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March 23, 2018

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Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center

What does your stomachache really mean?


Meet the medical professional in this story

• Alexander Akhavan, MD, family medicine physician at Alpine Healthcare, and Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center

A stomachache is one of the most common terms used to describe abdominal pain and/or discomfort, but in some cases, it may not be your stomach creating the problem.

“The term ‘stomachache,’ is not a good description because there are multiple organs in the abdomen besides the stomach that can cause pain,” said Dr. Alexander Akhavan. While gastrointestinal aches — occurring in the small intestine, colon, stomach or appendix — might be the culprit, Akhavan notes that other conditions can cause abdominal pain as well.

These conditions include kidney stones, gallbladder issues, urinary tract infections and even sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Understanding what’s causing your stomachache can help when seeking relief options.

Common causes

Whether it’s soreness, sharp pains, cramps or even just mild discomfort in the belly, there are a few likely causes.

The most common — indigestion, constipation, stomach virus, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food allergies/intolerances and/or gas — aren’t usually linked to serious illness.

The symptoms of these conditions may flare up when triggered, often are related to diet, and can be treated with medications and lifestyle modifications.

Other possible reasons your stomach hurts

• Gallstones: The gallbladder sits beneath the liver and secretes bile that is used for digesting fat. Gallstones are hard deposits of bile that can form within the gallbladder and can cause swelling and block the passage into the intestine.

This typically causes pain on the upper right side of the abdomen, and can be worsened after eating fatty foods.

• GERD: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called acid reflux or heartburn, is common and caused by a weakened or detached valve that separates the esophagus from the stomach.

Symptoms associated with GERD include pain in the upper stomach/lower chest area, and can be exacerbated by overeating and consuming certain types of food such as high-fat, acidic and/or spicy fares.

• Diverticulitis or diverticular inflection: Diverticula are small pockets that can form in the inside lining of the intestines. They’re common in middle-aged and older people, but typically aren’t symptomatic unless they become inflamed (diverticulitis) or infected (diverticular inflection).

Mild cases can cause cramping in the lower stomach, often occurring on the left side of the abdomen. More advanced cases can cause severe pain, fever, tenderness, nausea/vomiting and changes in bowel movements.

• Appendicitis: Most common in children and young adults, appendicitis occurs when the appendix becomes inflamed.

Complications associated with appendicitis can be life-threatening, so it’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you experience sudden and severe pain on the lower right part of the abdomen, often be worsened by moving the abdomen or legs, and/or by coughing/sneezing.

• Pelvic inflammatory disease: PID is a bacterial infection in the fallopian tubes, uterus or ovaries. It’s often caused by untreated gonorrhea or chlamydia, and in some cases by childbirth, abortion or an IUD. It can have serious consequences on a woman’s reproductive health and needs to be treated if symptoms arise.

Typically, symptoms include mild to severe, persistent pain of the lower abdomen/pelvis, as well as fever, vomiting and abnormal bleeding between menstrual cycles.

Diagnosing abdominal pain

Because there are so many potential causes of abdominal pain, a doctor’s diagnosis often is required to get to the root of the problem.

A complete medical history, thorough description of the symptoms and laboratory tests may be used during diagnostics.

Another reason you should talk to your doctor? Some serious conditions are commonly confused for general stomach pain.

“Heart attacks can be confused for heartburn, and appendicitis can mimic a gallbladder attack or a bladder infection,” Akhavan said. He recommends seeing a doctor or going to the emergency room when the pain is severe, progressively worsening, and/or associated with other symptoms such as vomiting, bleeding, fever or shortness of breath.

Tips for nursing an upset stomach at home

If your abdominal pain is mild, Akhavan recommends taking acetaminophen and drinking plenty of fluids, including Sprite, Gatorade or milk.