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What's Causing Your Stomach Pain

How to tell the difference between five of the most common causes of stomach pain
By Nisha Shah, MD

Regardless of its cause, stomach pain can be both uncomfortable and unpredictable. It may develop gradually or can come on suddenly – appearing on its own, or accompanied by other symptoms. Identifying the source of your stomach pain is important in order to determine how to treat it, however, that can be easier said than done. To help, gastroenterologist, Nisha Shah, MD, discusses several common causes of stomach pain and tips on how to tell them apart.

Some of the most common causes of stomach pain include:

Digestive issues

Each person’s digestive system is unique and your diet plays a big role in your digestive health as well as your bowel habits. Certain foods and beverages may irritate your digestive tract and cause digestive issues including indigestion, constipation, food allergies or sensitivity, gas, heartburn or acid reflux to develop. These digestive issues are often accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms such as abdominal bloating and pain (usually in the upper abdomen). You may also experience changes with your bowel habits including constipation or diarrhea. To help pinpoint food allergies or sensitivity, it can be helpful to monitor (and record) what you consume each day and note when you experience symptoms in order to identify any patterns. If you experience heartburn or acid reflux, you may also want to limit your alcohol and caffeine intake and avoid spicy foods. Certain lifestyle modifications can also help prevent digestion-related stomach pain including:

  • Eating smaller meals more frequently
  • Eating more slowly
  • Exercising regularly – when you are more active, your digestive system is more active as well
  • Stopping smoking
  • Getting enough rest
  • Increasing your fiber intake – adding more fruits, vegetables and bran cereals
  • Limiting your intake of high-fat foods
  • Trying an elimination diet – this can help you determine what food(s) or beverages(s) you may be sensitive to, so that you can minimize your intake (talk with your doctor about a low FODMAP diet)


Infections, including those caused by bacteria, parasites or viruses, can cause stomach pain. The location of the pain can vary depending on the organism and is accompanied by bloating, cramping, nausea, diarrhea and/or vomiting. If you have a viral infection, commonly referred to as gastroenteritis, or the “stomach bug”, a fever may also develop. These infections can occur by coming into contact with someone infected with the virus or a contaminated surface. Bacteria or parasitic infections often involve food or liquids that have become contaminated when not handled properly or from poor hygiene including inadequate handwashing. Taking precautions such as frequent and thorough handwashing, keeping foods chilled or heated to their recommended temperatures to avoid spoiling and avoiding contact with sick individuals, can reduce your risk of developing infection-induced stomach pain.


Chronic inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or acute conditions such as diverticulitis can cause stomach pain. The pain is often recurrent and you may also notice an increase in your frequency and urge to have a bowel movement. Over time, this can cause weight loss and anemia. If you experience frequent constipation or diarrhea, talk to your primary care physician to determine the cause. In many cases, a combination of lifestyle modifications, dietary changes and medication can be used to manage inflammatory conditions and reduce their symptoms.

When one of the organs located in your abdomen becomes inflamed, it can also cause stomach pain. If you have an inflamed organ, such as your appendix, gallbladder, kidney or liver, the pain often begins suddenly, can be sharp and is usually felt in a specific area of your stomach, rather than being wide-spread. If the inflammation worsens (in some cases the organ may even rupture), other symptoms such as fever, nausea and/or vomiting may develop as well. If you experience sharp, persistent pain in your stomach, develop a fever or begin to vomit, seek medical care right away.

Menstrual cramps

Menstrual cramps are one of the most common symptoms women experience during their monthly cycle. Hormone-related cramps can also occur during pregnancy, or can be caused by other female-related health conditions. Menstrual cramps vary for each person and may be minor, or can become severe enough to interfere with your day-to-day activities. Anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, are often an effective way to reduce stomach pain caused by menstrual cramps. Using a heating pad, resting, limiting your caffeine and avoiding smoking or alcohol can also help. If you experience frequent or severe cramping, alert your physician to rule out a more serious underlying health condition. Your physician can also recommend additional symptom management techniques.


An obstruction (blockage) in your intestines can be extremely uncomfortable, restricting the passage of foods and liquids through your intestines. A blockage can develop after undergoing an abdominal or pelvic surgery, from inflammation in your intestine, a hernia, stool that has become impacted, infected growths within your intestine (diverticulitis) or if your colon twists. In addition to pain, you may experience cramping and visible swelling in your abdomen, loss of appetite, nausea and/or vomiting. It can also affect your ability to produce a bowel movement or pass gas. Over time, if undetected or untreated, the blocked portion of your intestine can die, leading to more serious complications. Because of this, it is important to get prompt medical care if you experience severe or worsening abdominal pain, bloating and a lack of bowel movements.

Stomach Ulcers

Stomach ulcers (also called peptic ulcers) are painful sores along the lining of your stomach and small intestine. An ulcer develops when the layer of protective mucus in your stomach is weakened, allowing digestive acid to break down your stomach lining. Certain medications including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) or bacterial infections can increase your risk of developing a stomach ulcer. A stomach ulcer often causes symptoms such as dull, persistent stomach pain, gradual weight loss, a lowered appetite, bloating, frequent burping and heartburn. Stomach ulcers are easy to treat but can become severe if left untreated. For example, an untreated ulcer may begin to bleed, causing stools to appear dark or tarry, or produce dark vomit that looks similar to coffee grounds. Bleeding ulcers can be life-threatening so it is important to consult with your doctor right away if you have symptoms of an ulcer.

These are just some of the many causes of stomach pain. Paying attention to the location, sensation and severity of your pain can help you to identify the cause and select the right treatment plan. If you experience persistent or worsening stomach pain, or new symptoms develop, seek prompt medical care. For help with recurrent stomach pain, changes with your bowel habits or other digestive issues, schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist. Appointments can be made online or by calling 630-717-2600.


If you are interested in this health topic, you may also like: 

Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Women and Gut Health

Choose Tummy Taming Foods

Topics and Subtopics: Digestive Disorders & Diet & Nutrition

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