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Abdominal Pain

abdominal pain

Pain in the abdomen is common. It doesn't last long and is usually due to a gut infection but there are other possible causes. Pain that is severe or doesn't settle quickly may need attention from a doctor.

What is abdominal pain?

The abdomen is that part of your body which is below your ribs and above your hips. When you have a pain in that area doctors will call it abdominal pain. Occasionally it can be caused by problems in other organs.

What is the gastrointestinal tract?

The gastrointestinal tract starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. When we eat or drink the food and liquid travel down the esophagus-food pipe, into the stomach. The stomach partially digests the food and then passes it into the small intestine. The small intestine is several meters long and is principal area where food is digested and absorbed. Undigested food, water and waste products are then passed into the large intestine. Mostly water and salts are absorbed into the body from the colon. The colon leads into the rectum where feces (stools) are stored before they are passed out from the anus.

What are the types of pain?

Broadly classified, pains may be sharp or stabbing, crampy, colicky or a general dull ache. Colicky means gradually becoming worse, and then becoming less to again increasing in intensity. This may happen repeatedly. Doctors may want to know whether the pain seems to be radiating (travelling) in a certain direction.

What problems can cause pain in the gut?

Some of the more common causes include the following

  • Indigestion
  • Usually this means that you might feel a discomfort in the top of your abdomen or behind your breast bone. This happens usually after eating certain types of food especially food rich in spices and fat. You may feel like burping a lot or have nasty acid taste coming into your mouth. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell angina or a heart attack from indigestion. If you have pain that goes into your jaw or down your left arm, it might be angina. A pain that seems to persist requires immediate attention of a physician and it is best to call for an ambulance or each your nearest medical service.

  • Bloating
  • This is usually a crampy pain across the abdomen after eating and may be wind. Your abdomen may feel swollen or bloated. If you are able to go to the toilet and open your bowels, or pass wind (fart) the pain usually goes.

  • Constipation
  • Constipation is a very common ailment. It means either going to the toilet less often than usual to empty the bowels, or passing hard or painful stools. Long standing constipation is usually associated with crampy pains occur in the lower abdomen.

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common bowel disorder of unknown causes. Symptoms can be quite variable and include abdominal pain, bloating, and sometimes bouts of diarrhoea and/or constipation. Symptoms tend to come and go. It is important to know that there is no cure for IBS, but symptoms can often be eased with treatment.

  • Appendicitis
  • Appendicitis means inflammation of the appendix. The appendix is a small pouch that comes off the gut wall at the beginning of the large intestine. Appendicitis is a very common ailment. Usual symptoms include abdominal pain and vomiting that gradually get worse over 6-24 hours. The pain usually starts in the middle of the abdomen but over time seem to move towards the right hip.

  • Kidney stones
  • Pain starts in your back and seems to travel around the side of your abdomen to your groin, may be a kidney stone. The pain is usually very severe and comes and goes. This is called renal colic. The pain disappears when the stone is passed. There may be blood in your urine too.

  • Urine infection
  • This is a common cause of a nagging burning pain that is low down in the abdomen in women. It is much less common in men. Along with pain, you may feel sick and sweaty. There may be a sharp stinging when you pass urine and there may be blood in the urine.

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the uterus and/or Fallopian tubes. Pain in the lower abdomen (pelvic area) is the most common symptom. It can range from mild to severe. Pain during sex can also occur. It is also usually associated with vaginal discharge

  • Gallstones
  • The usual symptoms include severe pain in the upper right side of the abdomen. This is called biliary colic. The pain is usually worst to the right-hand side, just below the ribs. Pain from biliary colic can last from just a few minutes to several hours. The pain is usually associated with nausea, vomiting and a feeling of bloating.

  • Period pain
  • Most women have some pain during periods. In most of them the pain is often mild but, in about 10% women, the pain is severe enough to affect day-to-day activities. The pain can be so severe that they are unable to go to school or work. The good news is that periods tend to become less painful as you get older. An over the counter painkiller like paracetamol often eases the pain.

  • Food poisoning
  • Food poisoning is medically referred gastroenteritis. It is an infection of the gut (intestines) - that usually causes diarrhea with or without vomiting. Crampy pains in your abdomen are common. Pains may ease for a while each time you pass some diarrhea.

  • Stomach and duodenal ulcers
  • It is felt in the upper part of your gut. The pain usually comes at night and wakes you up. Food may make it better in some types of ulcer, or may make it worse.

This list just includes some common conditions that cause abdominal pain. The common worry is that gut pain is because of cancer. Although pain in the abdomen is a symptom of cancer, it is important to know that cancer is relatively rare and associated with other symptoms. These may include weight loss, blood loss or a change in bowel habit.

What should you do next?

The above description may help you to recognize your type of pain. However, if you have a pain that is not going away quickly (within a few hours) or that is progressively getting worse requires that you reach your nearest health care provider. In order to maintain a healthy digestive system do the following

  1. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
  2. Eat plenty of fiber (roughage)
  3. Drink plenty of water when you eat a high-fiber diet (at least 6-8 cups of fluid a day).

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