Abdominal Pain Overview
Abdominal pain can range in intensity from a mild stomach ache to severe acute pain. The pain is often nonspecific and can be caused by a variety of conditions. Many organs are found within the abdominal cavity. Sometimes the pain is directly related to a specific organ such as the bladder or ovary, while other times it is more diffuse or non-specific.. Usually, abdominal pain originates in the digestive system. For example, the pain can be caused by appendicitis, diarrheal cramping, or food poisoning. The type and location of pain may help the physician find the cause. The intensity and duration of pain must also be considered when making a diagnosis. A few general characteristics of abdominal pain are as follows:
- Character of Pain: Abdominal pain can be sharp, dull, stabbing, cramp-like, knifelike, twisting, or piercing. Many other types of pain are possible.
- Duration of Pain: Abdominal pain can be brief, lasting for a few minutes, or it may persist for several hours and longer. Sometimes abdominal pain comes on strongly for a while and then lessens in intensity for a while.
- Triggering Events: The pain may be worsened or relieved by certain events, such as worse after meals, better with a bowel movement, better after vomiting, or worse when lying down.
Abdominal pain can make a person want to stay in one place and not move a muscle. Or the pain can make them so restless they want to pace around trying to find “just the right position.” The health care practitioner will try to pinpoint the area of the abdomen where the pain originates when determining the cause of abdominal pain. This is done by combining questions such as – “When you first had the pain, where did you feel it?” – with examination of the abdomen. Softly pressing on certain areas to elicit the pain and perhaps palpating other areas to examine the size and exact location of an organ are other parts of the physical examination.
When this is combined with general questions about the pain such as “Is the pain dull or sharp?” “How long have you had the pain?” and questions about your state of health – “Did you have to vomit?” – the health care practitioner can narrow down the possible causes of the pain. Once the questions and physical exam are completed, the health care practitioner will either give the patient a diagnosis and advise on follow-up recommendations or order blood tests, and possibly X-rays and imaging studies to further help identify why the patient is in pain.
Many acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) diseases cause abdominal pain.
- Diseases people worry about most areappendicitis, gallbladder disease, duodenal and gastric ulcers, infections, andpregnancy-associated problems.
- Doctors also worry about the following conditions: ruptured blood vessels, heart attack, liver and pancreas inflammation, kidney stones, problems with the blood circulation to the intestine, diverticulitis, and other diseases.
Abdominal pain may not arise from the abdomen.
- Some heart attacks and pneumonias can cause abdominal pain.
- Diseases of the pelvis or groin can also cause a pateint’s abdomen to hurt.
- Certain skin rashes, such as shingles, can feel like abdominal pain, even though the person has nothing wrong inside their body.
- Even some poisonings, such as a black widow spider bite, can cause severe abdominal pain.
From the above it is apparent that abdominal pain can have many causes, some linked directly to the abdomen and others caused by non-abdominal disease. Sometime the cause of abdominal pain is not found by the patient’s health care practitioner during the initial evaluation. In some cases, no specific cause is determined, and the pain gets better in hours or days.
Abdominal Pain Symptoms
Abdominal pain is a symptom. It may mean that the person has a medical problem that needs treatment. Abdominal pain may go along with other symptoms. Try to keep track of the symptoms, because this will help the health care practitioner’s find the cause of the person’s pain.
Self-Care at Home
Abdominal pain without fever, vomiting, vaginal bleeding, passing out, chest pain, or other serious symptoms often get better without special treatment.
- If the pain persists or if the person believes the pain may represent a serious problem, they should see a health care practitioner.
- A heating pad or soaking in a tub of warm water may ease the person’s pain.
- Over-the-counter antacids, such as Tums, Maalox, or Pepto-Bismol, also can reduce some types of abdominal pain. Activated charcoal capsules also may help.
- Acetaminophen (common brand names are Arthritis Foundation Pain Reliever, Aspirin Free Anacin, Panadol, Liquiprin, Tylenol) may help. This product should be avoided if liver disease is suspected. Try to avoid aspirin or ibuprofen (common brand names are Advil, Motrin, Midol, Nuprin, Pamprin IB) if stomach or ulcer disease is suspected. These drugs can make some types of stomach ache worse.
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