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Abdominal pain

10-minute read

If you have a sudden, severe, incapacitating pain in your abdomen, go immediately to your nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Abdominal pain is felt anywhere in the area between the bottom of the ribs and the pelvis.
  • Pain in the abdomen may be aching, stabbing, burning, twisting, cramping, dull, or gnawing.
  • There are many causes of abdominal pain.
  • Abdominal pain can be serious, but most abdominal pain gets better on its own without needing any special treatment.
  • Don’t ignore abdominal pain — see your doctor if your symptoms are severe, get worse over time, keep coming back, or are ongoing.

What is abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain is pain felt anywhere in the area between the bottom of the ribs and the pelvis. Most Australians will experience abdominal pain at some point in their lives.

Abdominal pain can be serious, but most abdominal pain gets better on its own without needing any special treatment.

People sometimes refer to abdominal pain as stomach pain, stomach ache, stomach cramps, tummy pain, sore stomach, wind pain or belly ache.

Pain or discomfort in the abdomen can be mild or severe. It may come on suddenly (acute); it could be something that you experience from time to time (recurrent); or it could be an ongoing symptom that lasts for more than 3 months (chronic). It can also start off mild and steadily worsen (progressive). Pain that comes and goes in waves is referred to as colicky pain.

This page is about abdominal pain in adults, or anyone over the age of 12. Go to this page for information on abdominal pain in children.

What other symptoms relate to abdominal pain?

Pain in the abdomen may be experienced as aching, stabbing, burning, twisting, cramping, dull, or a gnawing pain.

The pain may also be accompanied by other symptoms, such as a feeling of discomfort in the abdomen, bloating, constipation, wind (farting, gas or flatulence), belching (burping), fever, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, fever, dehydration or loss of appetite

The pain might be steady or it might get stronger. It can be made worse — or it can be improved — by changes in posture or by coughing.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Describing the pattern and location of your symptoms to a doctor may help them in identifying the cause of your abdominal pain. These causes include:

  • Peptic ulcer — The pain is often felt in the upper abdomen, as a knife-like pain which goes through to the back.
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) — The pain usually causes a central burning pain that develops just under the breastbone, and may rise upwards. It may be accompanied by belching.
  • Appendicitis — The pain usually starts near the navel (belly button) before moving down to the lower right abdomen when it becomes more constant.
  • Gallstones or gallbladder irritation — The pain is felt in the upper right abdomen, back or right shoulder.
  • Lower abdominal pain — Also referred to as ‘lower stomach pain’, it is probably coming from your bowel.
  • Period pain — This is usually a dull, cramping pain, felt low down, which may radiate through to the back.

The cause of the pain will affect how long your symptoms will last. Gastroenteritis usually lasts a few days before it clears up. Food poisoning may take a few hours or days to develop and then may last for several days.

What causes abdominal pain?

Abdominal pain is frequently caused by a problem in the digestive tract (the gut). However, it can also be caused by other organs located in the abdomen, such as the kidneys. Large blood vessels, such as the aorta are also found in the abdomen and may give rise to pain. Abdominal pain can even be caused by some medicines.

Causes of abdominal pain connected to the gut include:

Causes of abdominal pain related to other organs include:

Some medicines can cause abdominal pain as a side effect, including:

Some of the causes of abdominal pain are short-term (acute), whereas others are long-term or ongoing (chronic) conditions. Find more information about the underlying causes of abdominal pain here.

When should I see my doctor?

In some cases, you should seek urgent medical attention or consult a doctor if you have abdominal pain.

If you have a sudden, severe, incapacitating pain in your abdomen, go immediately to your nearest emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

You should also seek urgent medical attention if you have pain that:

  • is severe and/or getting worse
  • has lasted for several hours or more
  • wakes you from sleep
  • is spreading to your neck, chest or shoulders
  • makes it difficult to swallow

Urgent medical attention is also required if you have abdominal pain accompanied by

  • bleeding from your bowel or blood in your urine
  • vaginal bleeding that is not associated with your menstrual cycle
  • a change in your bowel habits
  • being unable to pee (pass urine), poo (have a bowel motion) or fart (pass gas)
  • persistent vomiting
  • fever (a temperature of 38 degrees Celcius or higher)
  • swelling of the abdomen
  • unexplained weight loss
  • skin that appears yellow

If you are experiencing pain high up in your abdomen that is made worse by exercise it could be angina or a heart attack. If you, or someone near you is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

If you are pregnant and experiencing abdominal pain, check with your doctor or midwife. Abdominal pains are common in pregnancy, but should always be checked out.

If your abdominal pain does not match the situations above, but it is recurrent (keeps coming back) or persistent (ongoing), or it started mild but is worsening, you should still consult a doctor.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is the cause of abdominal pain diagnosed?

Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms seen by GPs (doctors who work in general practice).

Information about your symptoms and the location of the abdominal pain can help a doctor diagnose the cause of your pain. They will want to know how long you have had the pain and may want to do a physical examination. If you are female, this may include a pelvic examination. If you are male, it may include checking your penis and scrotum.

They may suggest you have some blood tests or other diagnostic procedures done, especially if you have had the symptoms for some time.

Tests and procedures that may help in diagnosing the cause of abdominal pain include:

Other procedures that may be suggested, depending on your gender, include:

  • pregnancy test and/or pelvic ultrasound (for women)
  • ultrasound of the scrotum (for men)

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is abdominal pain treated?

The treatment of abdominal pain will depend on its underlying cause.

Mild abdominal pain may go away on its own within hours or days. Mild pain and related symptoms can also often be treated with medicines from the pharmacy. Your pharmacist will be able to advise you on what type of product is best suited to your situation.

You should not use aspirin or anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen, to treat abdominal pain, other than period pain. These medicines may cause or irritate a stomach or bowel problem.

If you are treating mild abdominal pain with a known cause at home:

  • keep hydrated by drinking clear fluids; restrict alcohol, tea and coffee
  • stay rested
  • use a hot water bottle or warm wheat pack on your abdomen
  • eat bland foods when you can start eating again, or as advised by your doctor

Specific treatments, depending on the cause of your abdominal pain, include the following:

Gas — Medicines designed to break down gas bubbles, such as antacids containing simethicone, are available over the counter. Gas-reducing medicines such as charcoal products, may help with ongoing wind problems. Dietary changes may also help. An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) or your doctor can help with dietary advice.

Gastroenteritis — This usually only lasts a few days and clears up by itself. Rehydrating by drinking plenty of clear fluids is the most important treatment.

Pain due to muscle spasms — Spasms in the wall of the bowel may be eased by antispasmodic medicines. Several are available, so talk to your pharmacist or doctor about which are right for you.

Pain due to acid reflux (GORD) — This may be managed by making lifestyle changes and/or taking specific medicines to control acid in your stomach.

Pain due to stomach ulcers or duodenal ulcers — This type of pain is usually managed by trying to heal the ulcers, which will relieve the symptoms. This may involve acid-reducing medicines and antibiotics prescribed by your doctor.

Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) — Flare-ups of these conditions may be treated with a range of medicines, and they may also be taken on an ongoing basis to prevent future flare-ups.

There are many other causes of abdominal pain and your doctor will be able to advise on the appropriate treatment once the cause is known. In some cases, such as appendicitis or bowel obstruction, the person may need emergency surgery.

The types of medicines that may be recommended to treat abdominal pain include:

  • antispasmodics
  • antidiarrhoeals
  • laxatives
  • anti-nausea medicines
  • anti-flatulence medicines
  • antacids
  • antibiotics

Can abdominal pain be prevented?

Eating enough fibreand doing regular exercise can help prevent constipation and keep your bowels working well, which will prevent some forms of abdominal pain. It will also reduce your long-term risk of some diseases, such as diverticular disease or bowel cancer.

Drinking plain water — but not carbonated or fizzy drinks — will reduce the chance of pain from bloating as well as keeping your body healthy.

Following a specific diet can help reduce pain due to lactose intolerance, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome and trapped gas, or wind.

Resources and support

For advice on what to do if you have abdominal pain, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

For more information and support, try these resources:

Other languages

For information in other languages than English:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021

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