Abdominal pain

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Abdominal pain

Learn whether your abdominal pain might stem from a simple or potentially serious cause.

You've had abdominal pain for several hours, and there doesn't seem to be any relief in sight. Should you wait it out or seek help right away?

Abdominal pain is common. Episodes often stem from overeating or eating too much of a certain type of food. Sometimes a viral or bacterial infection (gastroenteritis) is responsible. In other cases, the pain may be an early warning sign of something more serious. But, you can't always judge the severity of its cause by how much pain you feel. Cramping from a viral infection or simple gas can cause severe pain, while potentially life-threatening problems, such as colon cancer or appendicitis, may cause little or no pain initially.

Upper middle abdomen

The epigastric area — directly above the navel in the upper middle section of the abdomen — is where you might feel pain associated with stomach disorders. Persistent pain in this area may also signal a problem with your pancreas or gallbladder.

Upper right abdomen

Intense pain in the upper right abdomen is often related to inflammation of the gallbladder. The pain may extend to the center of your abdomen and penetrate to your back. Occasionally, an inflamed pancreas, colon or duodenum can cause pain in this area as well.

Lower left abdomen

Pain here often suggests a problem in the lower colon, where food waste is expelled. Possible causes include inflammatory bowel disease or an infection in the colon known as diverticulitis.

Migrating pain

Abdominal pain has the unusual ability to travel along deep nerve pathways and emerge at sites away from the source of the problem. Pain related to gallbladder inflammation, for example, can spread to your chest and your right shoulder. Pain from a pancreas disorder may radiate up between your shoulder blades. This is often called "referred pain."

Alternatively, abdominal pain may be referred pain from another condition, such as a heart attack or pneumonia.

When to see your doctor

Though most cases of abdominal pain aren't serious, sometimes medical treatment is essential. Consult your doctor if:

  • The pain is severe, recurrent or persistent
  • The pain gets worse
  • You can't eat because of the pain
  • You also have a high fever or chills along with the pain

Seek emergency help if:

  • The pain is accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, bleeding, vomiting or a high fever
  • The abdominal pain is sudden and severe
  • The pain radiates to your chest, neck or shoulder
  • You vomit blood
  • You find blood in your stool or your stool turns black
  • You find blood in your urine
  • Your abdomen is swollen and tender

Be prepared to describe the pain, including where it hurts and what it feels like. Proper diagnosis and treatment can help you feel your best again.

Last Updated: 04/27/2007
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