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Common causes of abdominal pain

 Common causes of abdominal pain

Whatever you call it – belly ache, tummy ache, stomach ache, stomach pain or gut ache – abdominal pain is something nearly all of us experience at some time or other. There are many things that can cause it, some of which are more serious than others. But most of the time abdominal pain isn’t serious and clears up on its own within a few hours or days.
Your abdomen is the part of your body that extends from your ribs to your hips. In this area are a number of organs that form part of your digestive system, including your stomach, intestines (small and large), liver, pancreas and gallbladder (your kidneys are also situated towards the back of your abdomen though they aren’t part of your digestive system). So, if you feel pain in your abdomen, it could be caused by a problem with one or more of these organs or by an issue with the outer part of the abdomen such as the abdominal muscles.
For diagnosis purposes doctors sometimes separate the abdomen into four different areas, namely the upper abdomen (that is, the abdominal area above your navel) and the lower abdomen, as well as the right and left side of your abdomen. This can be useful when you have abdominal pain because it could help your doctor decide which organs might be affected:
Upper right abdomen: this houses your liver, gallbladder, right kidney and pancreas.
Upper left abdomen: here’s where you can find your stomach, left kidney and spleen.
Lower right abdomen: this part of your body is home to your appendix, part of your small intestine and your ascending colon (part of the colon or large intestine).
Lower left abdomen: also the location of part of your small intestine as well as your descending colon (another part of the colon or large intestine).
In women, the reproductive organs are found in pelvic region, which sits just below the lower abdomen. Pain caused by the reproductive organs, however, is often referred to as abdominal pain as well as pelvic pain.

Types of abdominal pain

Abdominal pain can be anything from mild to severe. However, its severity doesn’t always reflect how serious it is – sometimes you may have strong abdominal pain caused by something very simple and easy to treat, while mild pain can be a symptom of a condition that could potentially be life threatening, such as the early signs of appendicitis or colon cancer.
But abdominal pain isn’t just mild, moderate, or severe. There are several other types, including:

  • Generalised pain – this is when your pain is widespread (that is, you feel it in more than half of your abdominal region)

  • Localised pain – this describes pain you feel in just one part of your abdomen (this is more likely to suggest you’re having a problem with one of your abdominal organs)

  • Dull pain or ache

  • Sharp or stabbing pain

  • Cramp-like pain

  • Colicky pain – often severe, this usually comes in waves, starting and ending quickly

Abdominal pain can also be acute – which is when it comes on suddenly – or chronic (that is, long-standing pain). It can strike now and again (recurrent pain), or it may be constant. Progressive abdominal pain is another type – this usually means pain that starts off being quite mild then becomes steadily worse.

Conditions that can cause abdominal pain

There are many things that can cause abdominal pain. For instance, there could be a problem with your digestion, or you may have an infection, an injury or an underlying condition that’s causing pain and discomfort in the abdominal area. On the other hand, having abdominal pain doesn’t always have to mean there’s a problem within your abdomen, since pain can sometimes spread to your abdomen from another nearby part of your body.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the common causes of abdominal pain, from the everyday to the more serious:
Indigestion (including heartburn)  This is a common complaint that many people experience every now and then. Indigestion can cause abdominal pain and discomfort, sometimes causing nausea, plus it can make you feel uncomfortably full or bloated. Heartburn is a symptom of indigestion and is that burning sensation some people experience in their abdomen and in their lower chest and up towards the throat. Both happen after eating.
Find out more about treating indigestion and heartburn quickly and easily with pharmacy remedies, as well as the things you can do to reduce or prevent them, by reading our indigestion and heartburn guide
Wind/bloating   These also tend to happen after eating – often by eating too much and/or too quickly – and can be very painful. Thankfully there’s lots you can do to reduce your risk of having them, as well as treatments that help relieve them. Find out what you need to know by reading The facts about flatulence and trapped wind
Constipation This means not being able to empty your bowel as regularly or as completely as usual, or straining to pass hard or lumpy stools. There are lots of things that can cause it, including not eating enough fibre and not drinking enough water. Constipation is also very common, and can make you feel very uncomfortable, often with cramp-like pains in your lower abdomen. Read more about it in our constipation guide.
Diarrhoea   Just as uncomfortable and unpleasant as constipation, diarrhoea is when you pass frequent loose or water stools (abdominal pain is often another symptom). It is often a result of having gastroenteritis, which is an infection of the intestines typically caused by viruses and food poisoning (though other things can cause diarrhoea too, including stress, anxiety as well as many other conditions). Learn more about it and what you can do to feel better in our diarrhoea guide
Irritable bowel syndrome   Like all the causes already mentioned, IBS is a condition that affects your digestive system. The condition, which has a variety of symptoms including abdominal pain and cramping, affects people differently – and even though it’s quite common, experts still aren’t sure what causes it. You can learn more about the symptoms of IBS and how what you eat could be triggering them by reading our article IBS symptoms and food to avoid
Diverticular disease   Intermittent lower abdominal pain and bloating can be a sign of diverticular disease (diverticula are small bulges or pockets that can form in the lining of the colon). Another condition – called diverticulitis – can develop when diverticula become inflamed and infected, causing more severe and constant cramping pain in the lower abdomen, usually on the left-hand side. Read more about both conditions in our guide to diverticular disease and diverticulitis
Kidney stones Problems with your kidneys can cause abdominal pain too. Kidney stones, for instance, are quite common and can cause severe and often intense pain in the abdomen, as well as in the lower back and/or groin. Along with other symptoms such as nausea and pain during urination, kidney stones sometimes lead to a kidney infection. This can cause pain in your side and lower back, along with a high temperature, nausea, vomiting, frequent urination and blood in your urine. You can find out more about both conditions and how they are treated by reading our article on kidney problems
Urinary tract infections   Kidney infections are also a type of urinary tract infection – others include infections of the bladder (cystitis) and urethra (urethritis). UTI symptoms include lower abdominal or back pain, along with a high temperature (or sometimes a very low temperature), painful urination, blood in your urine and urine that looks cloudy and has a strong smell. Women are far more likely to develop a UTI than men, largely because they have shorter urethras than men (the urethra is the tube that carries urine out of the body from the bladder). UTIs are easily treated with antibiotics, but there are lots of things you can do to prevent them happening in the first place – these are outlined in our guide to UTI prevention and management
Pelvic inflammatory disease   PID only affects women as it is an infection of the internal reproductive organs, including the uterus, fallopian tubes and sometimes the ovaries. Abdominal pain is the most common symptom, but you may experience lower back pain too, as well as heavy and/or painful periods and bleeding between periods or after having sex. If you think you may have PID it’s important to see your GP as soon as possible. since the earlier it’s treated the less likely you’ll experience complications (one of which is problems with fertility). There’s lots more information about this condition in our article Do I have pelvic inflammatory disease? 
Gallstones   Most people who develop gallstones don’t experience any symptoms. But if one of the stones blocks a bile duct – one of the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder – the most common result is abdominal pain (when this happens the pain is known as biliary colic). The pain can be mild or severe and is usually felt in the centre of your abdomen or below your right ribs. Find out what you can do to help prevent gallstones by reading What are gallstones? 
Period problems   Felt in the lower abdomen and/or pelvic area, period pain is extremely common, with around 80 per cent of women experiencing it at some point or other (i). Since pain in this area can also be caused by PID, fibroids or endometriosis, it’s a good idea to see your GP if you notice big changes in your periods, so that any underlying problems can be ruled out. Read more about how to manage period pain in our guide to period problems
Gastroenteritis   Also known as a tummy bug or stomach flu, gastroenteritis is caused by a virus called norovirus or by bacteria in food that cause food poisoning. Stomach cramps are common symptoms, alongside diarrhoea and vomiting – though you may also experience headache, a raised temperature and other aches and pains. However, while gastroenteritis can be quite unpleasant, it doesn’t usually last for more than a few days. Find out how you can soothe a bout of gastroenteritis in our guide to stomach bugs
Inflammatory bowel disease The two main types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, both of which cause abdominal pain and other symptoms including diarrhoea. Caused by inflammation of the digestive tract (just the colon in ulcerative colitis but any part of the gut in Crohn’s disease), IBD has no cure, though there are treatments that can help relieve the symptoms. You can read more about it in our article What is inflammatory bowel disease? 
Coeliac disease   An autoimmune disease that causes a reaction to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), coeliac disease has many symptoms, with abdominal pain being one of the most common. Though there’s currently no cure, following a gluten-free diet can really help manage the symptoms. This is why getting a diagnosis is important – though it’s not always simple, since coeliac disease shares many symptoms with some other digestive conditions, and many cases may be misdiagnosed as a result. For more information, read our coeliac disease guide.
Gastritis   Not to be confused with gastroenteritis, gastritis is a common condition where your stomach lining becomes inflamed. With gastritis there is often pain and burning sensations in the upper abdomen, just below the breastbone, which can become worse when you eat. This can often be confused with the pain of indigestion or heartburn. However, indigestion and heartburn tend to come and go, while gastritis is more persistent. Mild cases don’t usually need any treatment but see your GP if your abdominal pain is severe and lasts for more than a week. There’s more to learn in our article What causes gastritis? 
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of the things that can cause abdominal pain. A few other conditions that may also be responsible for it include:

  • Appendicitis

  • Stomach ulcer

  • Ectopic pregnancy

  • Pulled abdominal muscles

  • Pancreatitis

  • Some types of cancer (bowel, pancreatic, stomach and ovarian cancer, for instance)

You can treat many types of abdominal pain yourself (read on to find out how to feel better). However, if you have pain thats persistent, severe or you have no idea what the cause might be, always consult your doctor

How is abdominal pain treated?

How abdominal pain is treated depends on what’s causing it in the first place. Many cases don’t need any treatment and will clear up by themselves within a few hours or days. If you know what’s causing it, you could treat abdominal pain yourself with pharmacy medicines – for instance, painkillers (paracetamol may help but never take aspirin or ibuprofen for abdominal pain) or indigestion medicines.
Mild abdominal pain may also ease if you avoid solid food for a few hours and simply sip water or other clear fluids instead until you feel the pain easing. If you have a diagnosed condition that causes abdominal pain, try to follow your doctor’s instructions as closely as possible.
However, if you experience any of the following, speak to your GP or call NHS 111:

  • You have abdominal pain that gets much worse quickly

  • You have abdominal pain or bloating that won’t go away or keeps coming back

  • You have abdominal pain as well as problems swallowing food

  • You’re losing weight without trying

  • You have diarrhoea that doesn’t clear up after a few days

  • You’re suddenly urinating more or less often than normal

  • You’re in pain when you urinate

  • You have blood in your stools or you’re a woman who’s bleeding much more heavily than usual from your vagina or you have an abnormal vaginal discharge

Meanwhile if any of the following happens to you, call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E department:

  • You’re less than 16 weeks pregnant and have severe abdominal pain

  • You have pain in your abdomen that came on very suddenly or is very severe

  • You have abdominal pain that goes through to your back

  • You experience pain if you touch your abdominal area

  • You’re vomiting blood, or your vomit looks like ground coffee

  • Your stools are bloody or black and sticky and very smelly

  • You’re unable to urinate, pass stools or pass wind

  • You have also been fainting or having collapse episodes


Can abdominal pain be prevented?

There may not be much you can do to prevent some of the conditions that cause abdominal pain, but there are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of a few of the most common ones, such as constipation and indigestion:

  • Try to drink plenty of fluids every day

  • Eat smaller but more frequent meals if you find that helps

  • Stay active, as exercise helps your digestive system work effectively

  • Avoid foods you know upset your digestion – certain foods, for instance, can cause bloating and wind (there’s a list of gas-forming foods here)

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fibre (add fibre to your diet by eating more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains)


What else do you need to know?

You can find lots more information on a range of conditions that cause pain in many parts of the body by taking a look at the pain section of our pharmacy health library


  1. Women's Health Concern. (2022). "Period Pain." [online] Available at:


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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.

Our Author - Christine Morgan


Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.

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