If you have a sudden, severe, debilitating pain in your abdomen, go immediately to your nearest emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
What is abdominal pain?
Abdominal pain refers to cramps, a dull ache, or a sharp, burning or twisting pain in the belly (abdomen). Abdominal pain is also called stomach, belly, gut or tummy ache.
The abdomen holds major organs such as the stomach, large and small bowel, appendix, gall bladder, spleen, kidneys and pancreas. The body’s largest artery and largest vein also sit in the abdomen.
Abdominal pain can be very serious, but most abdominal pain is caused by a minor upset or stomach ‘bug’ and doesn’t last long. Minor abdominal pain is very common and people may experience stomach aches or cramps every few months or so. You can usually treat abdominal pain yourself and it will go away in a few days.
What are the characteristics of abdominal pain?
Abdominal pain may include any of the following, or a combination of these characteristics:
- dull ache or sharp pain
- burning pain
- twisting pain
- constant pain or intermittent pain
- sudden onset or slow onset of pain
- short lasting or long lasting pain
- pain felt in the centre of the stomach
- spreading to other areas of the stomach
- spreading to the back, neck, shoulder or into the pelvis
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the abdominal pain Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
What causes abdominal pain?
Abdominal pain can be caused by any inflammation or disease that affects any of the organs or blood vessels in the abdomen.
The causes of abdominal pain can include:
- food poisoning
- acid reflux
- trapped wind
- gall stones
- bowel obstruction
- causes of heart pain
If you are experiencing abdominal pain, the exact location of the pain and any other symptoms you might have may suggest the cause.
If you feel pain right across your stomach area or low down, it’s probably coming from your bowel. You may also have bloating and wind. If your stomach cramps have started recently and you also have diarrhoea, the cause is probably gastroenteritis. If you are very ill — for example, with chills or a fever — you may have a more serious infection such as food poisoning.
If the pain is coming from higher up in your stomach, it could be caused by acid reflux or an ulcer. You might also have heartburn and belching, and the pain might be made worse, or relieved, by food.
If the pain is in the middle of your stomach and extends to your back, it could be a sign of gallstones. Pain in the lower right part of the stomach, along with fever, nausea and vomiting, could be appendicitis.
If the pain is made worse by exercise it could be heart pain. Read more in the chest pain section. If you are experiencing this type of pain, call triple (000) and ask for an ambulance.
Some medicines, such as aspirin and anti-inflammatory and anti-dementia drugs, can cause stomach pain as a side effect.
You can find more information about the underlying causes of abdominal pain here.
What causes abdominal pain in children?
Common causes of abdominal pain in children include:
- an injury or pulled muscle caused by a direct blow or sporting injury
- period (menstrual) pain in girls who have started having periods
- nerves, excitement or worry
- trapped wind
- lower urinary tract problems, such as cystitis (as suggested by lower abdominal pain)
Most abdominal pain is mild and will go away without treatment after a few days. However, your child should see a doctor if the pain is severe or doesn’t go away, especially when they also have other symptoms, such as a fever. In this case, you should ensure they are monitored closely and they may need further medical assessment.
When should I see my doctor?
Sometimes, abdominal pain can signal something serious. You should see your doctor (GP) immediately or go to your nearest hospital emergency department if you:
- have pain that is severe and is getting worse
- have pain that spreads to your chest, neck or shoulders
- have pain that lasts for several hours or longer
- have pain and vaginal bleeding and you are pregnant
- have pain in the scrotum
- have pain and vomiting or shortness of breath
- have pain and vomiting blood
- have blood in bowel motions or urine
- can’t pee (pass urine), do a poo (bowel motion) or fart (pass gas)
- are experiencing vomiting that won’t go away
If you have a sudden, severe, debilitating pain in your abdomen, go to your nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. It may be a sign of a serious illness that requires urgent treatment.
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When should my child see a doctor?
Many children recover from abdominal pain quickly and don’t need to see a doctor.
Take your child to a doctor (GP) immediately or go to your nearest hospital emergency department if they:
- are in pain that goes on for longer than 24 hours or if you’re worried about them
- have pain that is severe or debilitating even though they have taken pain medicine
- are hard to wake and are unwell
- vomit for more than 24 hours, or they are unable to keep any fluids down, refusing to drink any fluids and their vomit is green
- have blood in their poo or vomit
- are having trouble doing a wee
- have pain and lumps in the groin
- were recently injured — for example, falling onto the handlebars of a bike
If your child is still a baby and they have fewer than 4 wet nappies per day, as well as their abdominal pain, you should take them to a doctor (GP) immediately or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.
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How is the cause of abdominal pain diagnosed?
If you are experiencing abdominal pain, you will need a physical examination and possibly some tests to help your doctor diagnose the cause of the pain. The examination or tests you have will depend on what sort of pain you are experiencing, how long you have had it, and your gender. If you are female, the physical examination may include a pelvic exam and pregnancy test. If you are a male, the examination may include checking your penis and scrotum.
The most common tests include:
- blood tests
- urine tests
- stool (poo) sample
- x-rays or CT scans
- ultrasound, in which a probe-like microphone is moved over your abdomen
- endoscopy or colonoscopy, in which a long tube is put either down your mouth or into your back passage (anus), while you are under anaesthetic, so a doctor can see what your stomach and bowel look like
How can I treat abdominal pain?
If you have abdominal pain, keeping warm and placing a heat pack or hot water bottle on your stomach may help.
If your abdominal pain does not require you to stop eating and drinking, stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of clear, non-alcoholic fluids. If you have a medical condition that restricts your fluid intake, check with your doctor about how much fluid you can have.
Eat small meals and - foods such as rice, dry toast or bananas. Avoid spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine until 48 hours after the pain has gone away.
Several medicines can help if you have non-acute abdominal pain, including:
- paracetamol to ease the pain (you should get medical advice before using other painkillers for abdominal pain)
- charcoal tablets or similar for wind pain
- medicines to ease spasms
- medicines to stop diarrhoea
Avoid aspirin or anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen and naproxen since these can irritate your stomach. A pharmacist can advise you about the most appropriate medicine for your abdominal pain.
In more serious cases, the treatment recommended will depend on the cause and severity of the abdominal pain, and how long you have had it. Treatment may include following a particular diet in the long term; getting more exercise; taking medicines; or having surgery.
Other questions you might have
When should you go to the hospital if you have abdominal pain?
If you have sudden, severe, debilitating pain in your abdomen, go to your nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.
Why is my stomach tender when I push on it?
Your stomach could be tender for a number of reasons, including gastroenteritis, food poisoning, acid reflux, ulcers, heartburn, trapped wind, gallstones, appendicitis or heart pain.
What do upper and lower abdominal pain signify?
If the pain is coming from higher up in your stomach, it could be caused by acid reflux or an ulcer. You might also have heartburn and belching and the pain may either be made worse or relieved by food.
If you feel pain right across your stomach area or low down, it’s probably coming from your bowel. You may also have bloating and wind. If your stomach cramps have started recently and you also have diarrhoea, the cause is probably gastroenteritis. If you are very ill — for example, with chills or a fever — you may have a more serious condition, such as food poisoning.
Resources and support
If you need to know more about abdominal pain, or to get advice on what to do next, call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
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Last reviewed: November 2019