Stomach ache and abdominal pain 

  • Overview

Introduction 

Five tips for a healthy tummy

  • Eat healthily and regularly. It is easy to spend our working lives gulping down food between meetings and then sitting in front of the TV with a takeaway in the evenings, but eating this way can cause problems with your digestive system.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking can weaken the muscle that controls the lower end of the oesophagus (gullet), causing heartburn.
  • Lose excess weight and exercise regularly. If you are overweight, your tummy fat puts pressure on your stomach and can cause heartburn.
  • Do not binge drink. This increases acid production in your stomach and can cause heartburn, as well as making other digestive disorders worse.
  • Beat stress. Anxiety and worry can upset the delicate balance of digestion and worsen digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

See digestive health for more information and advice.

A stomach ache usually refers to cramps or a dull ache in the belly (abdomen). It is normally short lived and caused by a minor upset or bug.

Severe abdominal pain is a greater cause for concern. If it starts suddenly and unexpectedly, it should be regarded as a medical emergency, especially if the pain is concentrated in a particular area. Call your GP as soon as possible or go to your nearest hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department if this is the case.

This topic covers the most common reasons for:

  • sudden stomach cramps
  • sudden, severe abdominal pain in a particular area of your belly
  • abdominal pain that has lasted a long time or that keeps returning

If you feel pain in the area around your ribs, read about chest pain for information and advice.

Stomach cramps due to trapped wind

Stomach cramps are often due to trapped wind and bloating. This is an extremely common problem that can be embarrassing but is easily dealt with – your chemist will be able to recommend a product, such as buscopan or mebeverine, which can be bought over the counter to treat the problem.

Sudden stomach cramps with diarrhoea

If your stomach cramps have started recently and you also have diarrhoea, the cause is probably a tummy bug (gastroenteritis). This means you have a viral or bacterial infection of the stomach and bowel, which should get better without treatment after a few days. A common cause of gastroenteritis is a norovirus.

Severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea that make you feel very ill (for example, causing chills or a fever) could be due to a more serious infection, such as food poisoning. This also usually gets better on its own without treatment.

If your stomach cramps and diarrhoea continue for more than a few days, you may have a long-term condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Sudden, severe abdominal pain

If you have sudden, agonising pain in a particular area of your belly, call your GP immediately or go to your nearest A&E department. It may be a sign of a serious illness that will rapidly get worse without treatment.

The most common causes of sudden, severe abdominal pain include:

  • appendicitis – the swelling of the appendix (a finger-like pouch connected to the large intestine), which causes agonising pain in the lower right-hand side of your abdomen and means your appendix will need to be removed
  • a perforated peptic ulcer – an open sore that develops on the inside lining of your stomach or duodenum (upper small intestine) that has broken through the lining
  • gallstones – small stones that form in the gallbladder, which may mean the gallbladder will need to be removed
  • kidney stones – small stones may be passed out in your urine, but larger stones may block the kidney tubes and you will need to go to hospital to have these broken up
  • diverticulitis – inflammation of the small pouches that are part of the bowel

Sometimes, sudden and severe pain in your abdomen can also be caused by an infection of the stomach and bowel (gastroenteritis). It may also be caused by a pulled muscle in your abdomen or an injury.

Click on the links above for more information on these conditions. If your GP suspects that you have appendicitis, they will refer you to hospital immediately.

Long-term or recurring abdominal pain

Adults who have persistent or repeated episodes of abdominal pain should see their GP. However, there is no need to panic as the cause is often not serious and can be managed.

Common causes in adults include:

  • irritable bowel syndrome – a common condition where the muscle in the bowel wall tends to go into spasm (tightens); pain is often relieved when you go to the toilet
  • Crohn's disease – a long-term condition that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive system
  • urinary tract infection that keeps returning (you will usually feel a burning sensation when you urinate)
  • a long-term peptic ulcer – an open sore that develops on the inside lining of your stomach or duodenum (upper small intestine) 
  • constipation
  • heartburn and acid reflux – stomach acid leaks from the stomach and up into the oesophagus, the tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach
  • period pain – painful muscle cramps in women that are linked to the menstrual cycle

Common causes in children include:

Click on the links above for more information on these conditions. 




Page last reviewed: 13/12/2012

Next review due: 13/12/2014

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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Ancientmariner said on 05 September 2014

Re gastroenteritis. My cottage has a problem with Voles (tiny rodents that can get through very small gaps) Needless to say they leave little "presents" in the kitchen. I suspect that this might be what has caused my gastroenteritis. I used to have a stray cat but it got run over so I'm reluctant to get another. The good news is that round here they say "If you've got mice don't worry because it means that you haven't got rats."

Other possible routes of infection are bird droppings which can easily land on the old type of non-recessed car door handles.

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franca12 said on 29 July 2014

hi I have got a really bad stomach I have had it now for 4 wks I have been to my doctors and they have given me laxido to help me go to the toilet but its not helping I am still in loads of pain even wen I can go to the toilet I am awake every nite in a lot of pain I keep getting really hot I get up to take painkillers in which don't help me much I don't no wat to do any more

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CatXCat said on 23 December 2013

Severe and sudden onset of abdominal pain can be misdiagnosed in A&E as the vomiting virus, when it is in fact Ischaemic bowel due to a blood clot blocking the blood supply to the bowel.

There is a short window of 12 hours to treat Ischaemic Bowel so make sure that that you ask about scans to rule out clots as soon as you reach A&E - especially at the weekend. By the time they work through the list of common causes of abdominal pain, it can be too late to do anything. Do not assume a good hospital will diagnose quickly. Time is of the essence here.

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Anonymous said on 05 November 2012

I was originally diagnosed with IBS, then later Ulcerative Colitis, becoming very ill after passing copious amounts of blood, this was later expanded to include Crohn's Disease after a Colonoscopy and X-Rays. They were going to operate to remove part of my colon but for some reason changed their mind and said they would go down the drugs route. Had to give up my job but didn't claim benefits thinking I was too well off and anyway I could rarely leave the house for fear of embarrassing mishaps. When I did eventually claim ESA some 6 months later I only received it for 3 months and then was sent for an assessment which I failed ! All benefit stopped immediately and when I said I would appeal, I was told rather curtly 'even if you win the appeal, we will still keep reassessing you every 6 months'. What a way to treat someone who has worked for 46 years years and when in need, to be treated so disgracefully. Anyway now in constant pain from morning to night, wake up everyday with pain and feeling sick, then at night awake to 2 to 3 am before I fall asleep through utter exhaustion. Take Co-Codamol everyday to try and ease some of the pain along with Mezavant XL and steroids when and if I bleed. My doctor is good but even now I've lost faith in him because whenever I go to him to try and get him and the hospital to do something about my suffering, all he does is send me for blood tests. I'm a great believer in the NHS but I'm just losing the will to live, I just can't stand this pain any more or the frustration trying to get someone to at least try and improve my situation.

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