Your digestive system is incredibly complex, allowing for the break down of food to give you the vitamins, nutrients, and minerals you need to survive and thrive. The stomach, a bean-shaped sack located just behind your lower ribs, is the widest part of the digestive system and capable of holding over one liter of food at one time. The digestive system is designed to digest food slowly, taking four to six hours on average to digest a meal.1
Unfortunately, your digestive system doesn’t always work the way it should, which can lead to pain, discomfort, and general digestion problems. Data from 1999 to 2008 published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that chest and abdominal pain were the two main reasons for emergency room visits.2 Let’s take a closer look at some common stomach pain causes and possible solutions to ease the pain and discomfort.
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Dyspepsia is the scientific term for indigestion. Indigestion itself is not so much a disease as it is a series of different symptoms and general discomfort in your upper abdomen. Dyspepsia is highly common, though everyone may experience its symptoms differently. Indigestion can also be a symptom of other digestive issues on this list.
People experiencing indigestion may have a variety of symptoms, including:
- Uncomfortable fullness after a meal
- Early fullness during a meal
- Mild to severe pain in the upper abdomen (the area between your navel and the bottom of your breastbone)
- Bloating or uncomfortable tightness in the upper abdomen
Indigestion can potentially lead to vomiting. You may also experience heartburn, though heartburn and indigestion are considered separate conditions.
More often than not, indigestion is caused by eating too much or too quickly, particularly if it involves fatty, spicy, or greasy foods. Regular indigestion may point to a more prominent issue.
Indigestion should go away on its own over time. However, you should consult a doctor if your dyspepsia symptoms persist for more than two weeks. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience severe pain with constant vomiting, unintentional weight loss, or stools that are black and tarry.3
Gastritis is another general term for a group of conditions, all of which cause inflammation of your stomach lining. This inflammation is usually caused by the same bacteria that results in stomach ulcers. Acute gastritis occurs suddenly, while chronic gastritis appears slowly over time. Gastritis can be caused by drinking too much alcohol or taking too many pain relievers, and certain other disorders and diseases may increase your risk of gastritis.
Gastritis does not always cause noticeable symptoms, but common symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- A fullness or tightness in your upper abdomen
- Gnawing or burning pain in your upper abdomen
Treatments for gastritis usually depend on the main factor causing it and may include antibiotics or antacids. Many people find success in eating smaller, more frequent meals and adjusting their diets to avoid alcohol and irritating foods.4
Gastroenteritis actually refers to an inflammation of your intestinal lining as caused by a bacteria, virus, or parasite. You probably know it better as the “stomach flu,” though it’s not a flu at all as the traditional influenza virus only affects your respiratory system. Viral gastroenteritis, often caused by a norovirus infection, is the second most common illness in the United States. Gastroenteritis is most often caused by contact with an infected person or ingestion of contaminated food or water. Norovirus spreads through the fecal-oral route so be sure to wash your hands before eating and avoid using the same restroom as an infected person.
The most common symptoms of gastroenteritis include:
- Abdominal cramps and pains
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Occasional muscle aches
- A low-grade fever
- Watery diarrhea, usually not bloody (bloody diarrhea points to a more severe infection)
The biggest danger with viral gastroenteritis is dehydration. You lose a lot of fluids because of the diarrhea and vomiting, and without replenishing those fluids, you can succumb to symptoms of dehydration. If you are having trouble staying hydrated you should see a doctor.
Gastroenteritis should generally go away on its own after a day or two, though some cases may last up to 10 days. There currently isn’t an effective treatment for gastroenteritis, so prevention is often the best form of treatment. Avoid food and water that may be contaminated, and wash your hands frequently, especially before meals.5
People with lactose intolerance don’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase. This enzyme is produced in the small intestine and is involved in the breakdown of lactose, a type of sugar commonly found in milk and other diary products. Lactase helps break down lactose so that your body can absorb its components. Without lactase lactose makes its way to the microbes of the large intestine, undigested where it ferments, creates gas and causes diarrhea. The amount of lactase enzyme your body produces is limited so everyone is lactose intolerant to some degree. Take in more lactose than lactase and you will experience the following symptoms:
- Nausea (and sometimes vomiting)
- Abdominal cramping
These symptoms usually start 30 minutes to two hours after initially eating or drinking dairy products.
Despite the initial discomfort, lactose intolerance isn’t particularly harmful. Symptoms from lactose intolerance should go away on their own. To avoid symptoms, avoid milk and dairy products. You may also consider taking digestive enzyme supplements containing lactase, which essentially give you a dose of lactase to help break down lactose.6 Some studies also suggest that probiotics may help to support digestion of dairy products and at least reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance.7
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the large intestine. It is more common in women (about twice as many women as men have IBS) and in people younger than 45.7 Modern medicine has yet to identify the precise cause of irritable bowel syndrome, though studies suggest that several factors could contribute to the disorder, including:
- Muscle contractions in the intestines
- Nerve abnormalities within your digestive system
- Inflammation within your intestines
- Changes in your gut bacteria
- Severe bacterial or viral infections
Although the disorder is chronic, only a small fraction of people with IBS experience severe signs or symptoms. The most common symptoms of IBS include:
- Mucus in your stools
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating that usually goes away (partially or completely) after a bowel movement
Most treatments for irritable bowel syndrome involve relieving symptoms through changes to diet and lifestyle, which may include:
- Avoiding high-gas foods, gluten, and other potential trigger foods
- Adhering to the FODMAP diet
- Drinking more fluids
- Exercising regularly
- Managing a better sleep schedule8
There is evidence that probiotics help reduce the constipation and diarrhea associated with IBS. Probiotics can work to modulate the immune response, lowering inflammation and irritation of the gut and reducing constipation and diarrhea.
Celiac disease is an immune disorder that prevents certain people from eating foods with gluten. Gluten is a protein commonly found rye, wheat, and barley. If you have Celiac disease, your body has developed an immune response against gluten. Much of where this response happens is in the small intestine which over time, leads to significant damage in the lining of your small intestine, which also prevents proper absorption of nutrients.
The symptoms of Celiac disease can vary from person to person. Children with Celiac disease may have different symptoms than adults. The general symptoms of the disorder include:
- Weight loss
- Gas and bloating
- Stomach pains
- Nausea and vomiting
However, over half of all adults with the disease exhibit symptoms caused by poor nutrient absorption including anemia, osteoporosis, and damage to the nervous system.
Celiac disease is genetic, and there is currently no cure for it. However, many people with Celiac disease can thrive on a strict gluten-free diet. This not only helps to prevent reactions and manage symptoms but also promotes healing of your intestinal lining and restoration of your body’s ability to absorb nutrients.9
Crohn’s disease is a type of irritable bowel disease that causes inflammation of your digestive tract. The inflammation can penetrate deep into your bowel tissue, leading to severe pain that can be debilitating. The areas of the digestive tract that become inflamed are different from person to person. Crohn’s disease most commonly affects the last part of the small intestine (known as the ileum) and the colon.
Symptoms of Crohn’s disease usually develop gradually, though some may experience a sudden onset of symptoms. Many may also experience periods of remission, free of any symptoms. When Crohn’s disease is active, it is often characterized by:
- Cramping and stomach pains
- Bloody stools
- Sudden weight loss and reduced appetite
- Sores in the mouth
- Pain or drainage around the anus
There is currently no known cure for Crohn’s disease, but many people with the disease can be treated using a combination of anti-inflammatory medication and nutrition therapy. Your doctor may recommend a low-fiber or low-residue diet to reduce the number and size of your stools.10
Some natural products that help with inflammation include turmeric, fish oil, and probiotics.
Your gallbladder is a small organ that is shaped like a pear and located just under your liver. It is responsible for storing bile, which is released into your small intestine and helps to break down food. However, in some people, bile and other digestive fluids may collect in the gallbladder and harden into solid deposits known as gallstones. These stones can be as large as a golf ball or as small as a grain of sand. Gallstones most commonly develop when your bile contains a high concentration of cholesterol or a chemical known as bilirubin.
If you have gallstones, you may show no signs or symptoms. The real problem comes when a gallstone becomes lodged in a duct, causing a blockage. This can result in:
- Sudden and intensifying pain in the upper right or center of your abdomen
- Nausea or vomiting
- Right shoulder pain
- Pain between your shoulder blades
If you don’t show any symptoms, you probably won’t require treatment, though you should stay alert if any new symptoms develop. Gallstones can be dissolved using medication, but this is not always effective. Severe cases of gallstones may require complete removal of your gallbladder, which you can live comfortably without. To prevent gallstones, avoid skipping meals and try to maintain a healthy weight.11
If you are female, being pregnant is always a possible cause of belly pain. Over-the-counter tests are available to see if you are pregnant. Some discomfort is normal during pregnancy but if it persists or is concerning, see your doctor.
One of the more common causes of lower abdominal pain is menstrual cramps during the menses. Common remedies are over-the-counter inflammation relievers like ibuprofen. Endometriosis is a more severe pain that also occurs during menses.
Endometriosis happens when endometrium spreads beyond the uterine lining. The endometrium is a tissue that lines the inside of your uterus whose job is to nourish any fertilized eggs, but in some cases, it may abnormally grow outside the uterus, spreading into the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and other tissues lining your pelvis.
Despite being displaced, this endometrial tissue functions as normal, thickening, breaking down, and bleeding during your period. However, because it is growing outside of the uterus, the tissue and fluids have nowhere to go and become trapped. This can irritate surrounding tissue and eventually lead to scar tissue and adhesions that cause organs within the pelvis to stick together.
The main symptom of endometriosis is pelvic pain, particularly during your period. Although cramps are often normal during menstruation, endometriosis may cause even more severe pain than normal. Other symptoms may include:
- Painful urination or bowel movements
- Occasional heavy periods or bleeding between periods
Determining endometriosis based on pain alone isn’t always reliable, and the disorder is often easily mistaken for other problems, including IBS, ovarian cysts, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Endometriosis can be treated with surgery or medication depending on the severity of symptoms and your desires for future pregnancy. Surgery is often reserved as a last resort in lieu of hormone therapy, pain relief, and other medication-based treatments.12
Your appendix is a small organ that sticks out at the beginning of the large intestine. While the appendix may have once been useful to our ancestors, studies currently suggest that it serves no specific purpose. However, your appendix can potentially become inflamed, leading to appendicitis. Anyone can develop appendicitis, though it is more often to occur in people ages 10 to 30.
Appendicitis is most often noted by a sudden intense pain your lower right abdomen, though for many people, the pain starts around your navel and moves as the inflammation worsens. Other symptoms of appendicitis may include:
- A sudden loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- A low-grade fever
Appendicitis is easily treated with a simple surgery to remove the appendix. If you wait too long to seek treatment, your appendix may burst, leading to an infected abscess that requires draining before proceeding with surgery.13
DrFormulas® is a physician-founded health and nutrition company. We are experts in digestive health and take a holistic approach to modern health utilizing the best of traditional, Western, Eastern, and cutting-edge medicine. We offer a wide range of digestive supplements to help support a healthier you!