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What causes abdominal pain?

3-minute read

There are many different causes of abdominal pain. Some cause short-term pain, some cause long-term pain or pain that comes and goes (recurring pain) and others cause sudden and severe pain.

Short-term abdominal pain

Among the most common causes of stomach cramps are trapped wind and bloating, which can be embarrassing, but are easily dealt with. Your chemist can recommend a product, such as charcoal tablets, which can be bought over the counter to relieve the wind.

If your stomach cramps are accompanied by diarrhoea, the cause is probably gastroenteritis. This is a viral or bacterial infection of the stomach and bowel, which your immune system will usually fight off after a few days.

Severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea that make you feel very ill (for example, causing chills or a fever) could be due to a more serious infection, such as food poisoning. This also usually gets better on its own without treatment.

Long-term or recurring abdominal pain

Common causes of long-term or recurrent abdominal pain in adults include:

  • irritable bowel syndrome – a condition where the muscle of the bowel wall tends to spasm (tighten); pain is often relieved when you go to the toilet
  • a urinary tract infection that keeps returning
  • a peptic ulcer – an open sore that develops on the inside lining of your stomach or duodenum (upper small intestine)
  • constipation
  • heartburn and reflux – stomach acid leaks from the stomach and up into the oesophagus (the tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach)
  • period pain – crampy abdominal pain occurring in a menstrual cycle.

Sudden and severe abdominal pain

There are a number of conditions that cause severe and sudden pain, including:

  • a perforated peptic ulcer – an open sore that develops on the inside lining of your stomach or duodenum (upper small intestine) that has broken through the lining
  • gallstones – small stones that form in the gallbladder
  • appendicitis – inflammation of the appendix. Appendicitis is a medical emergency, and your doctor will refer you to hospital immediately
  • gastroenteritis – an infection of the stomach and bowel
  • kidney stones – stones of calcium and other matter that form in the kidney
  • diverticulitis – inflammation of the small pouches that are part of the bowel
  • bleeding aneurysm – the aorta, which is the main artery from the heart, leaks.

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.

See your doctor if

  • The pain quickly gets much worse
  • It won’t go away or keeps returning
  • You are losing weight unexpectedly
  • You have an unusual discharge from the vagina
  • You are bleeding from your bottom
  • There is a persistent change in your toilet habits

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your abdominal pain, why not use healthdirect’s online 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).



Last reviewed: August 2017

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