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What is abdominal pain?
Abdominal pain, often known as stomach, belly or tummy ache, usually refers to cramps or a dull ache in the belly (abdomen). It's usually short-lived and caused by a minor upset or stomach bug.
Abdominal pain is very common — about 1 in 3 Australians have stomach ache or cramps every few months or so.
You can usually treat abdominal pain yourself and it will go away in a few days. But sometimes pain can signal something more serious is wrong.
Seek medical attention if:
- the pain is severe and getting worse
- you are losing weight
- you have bleeding from the bowel
- you have difficulty swallowing
- you having vomiting that doesn’t go away
If you have sudden, agonising pain in your belly, seek medical help immediately by either calling your doctor, going to your nearest emergency department or call an ambulance on triple zero (000). It may be a sign of a serious illness that requires urgent treatment.
What causes abdominal pain?
The location of the pain and the other symptoms you have can give you a clue about the cause of your pain.
If the pain is all over your stomach area or low down, it’s probably coming from the 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 in the middle of your stomach and extends to your back, it could be a signal of gall stones. 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 it’s important to see your doctor.
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.
How is abdominal pain treated?
You may need to have some tests to help work out what is causing the pain. The tests you may have depends on what sort of pain you have, and how long you have had it, but the most common ones include:
- blood tests
- x-rays or CT scans
- ultrasound, in which a probe like a microphone is moved over your abdomen
- endoscopy, in which a long tube is put either down your mouth or up your backside when you are under anaesthetic, so a doctor can see what your stomach and bowel look like
The treatment recommended will depend on the cause and severity of the pain, and how long you have had it. It may include following a particular diet, getting more exercise, taking medicines or having surgery.
Can abdominal pain be prevented?
Warmth often eases abdominal pain. So keeping warm, and using a heat pack or hot water bottle safely, may help.
It’s important to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of clear non-alcoholic fluids. If you have a medical condition which restricts your fluid intake, check with your doctor about how much fluid you can have.
Eat small meals and mild foods such as rice, dry toast or bananas. Avoid spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine until 48 hours after the pain has gone away.
There are a number of medicines which can help, including:
- paracetamol to ease 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 nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen and naproxen as these can irritate your stomach. You could talk to a pharmacist or call healthdirect on 1800 022 022 about this.
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
- menstrual (period) pain in girls who have started their 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 clear up without treatment in a few days. But see a doctor if the pain is severe or doesn’t go away, especially when your child has other symptoms, such as a fever, requires close monitoring and may need further medical assessment.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your abdominal pain, why not use healthdirect's Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self-care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: July 2019