Abdominal Pain - When To See A Doctor

woman with abdominal pain
woman with abdominal pain. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Abdominal pain - pain or discomfort in the abdominal area - is something all of us experience sooner or later. Most of the time the cause of abdominal pain is relatively benign and self-limited. Sometimes, however, it indicates a serious medical condition, or even a medical emergency. So, it is important to know when to see a doctor if you have abdominal pain.

Causes of Abdominal Pain

The abdomen contains numerous organs (including stomach, duodenum, small and large intestines, pancreas, gall bladder, liver, kidneys, and reproductive organs), as well as muscles, blood vessels, bones and other structures.

So the list of disorders that can produce abdominal pain is very large.

Here is a partial list of some of the more common causes of abdominal pain:

While there are no hard rules, pain that is generalized (involving more than half of your abdomen) tends to have a relatively benign cause such as indigestion or a stomach virus, while pain that is localized to a particular area is more likely to be from a particular organ, such as appendix or gallbladder. Cramping pain is usually benign (unless it is severe, lasts for more than 24 hours, or occurs with a fever).

Colicky pain (pain that occurs in waves) is likely to be caused by obstruction or partial obstruction, such as with kidney stones or gallstones.

Keep in mind that it is often difficult enough for experienced physicians to make the right diagnosis of abdominal pain; it is usually foolish to try to figure this out for yourself.

Should You See A Doctor?

When they occur with abdominal pain, these signs indicate a possible emergency, and you should see a doctor or call for help right away if you have any of them:

  • You are vomiting blood
  • You have bloody or tarry stools
  • You are unable to pass stools, especially with vomiting
  • The pain extends above the abdomen (to the chest, neck or shoulder areas)
  • The pain is severe, sudden and sharp
  • The pain is accompanied by dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • You have cancer, are pregnant, or have had recent trauma
  • You have extreme tenderness in the region of the pain
  • Significant abdominal distention

You should also see (or at least call) a doctor if you have:

  • Pain that persists for more than a day or two, or becomes more severe over the first day
  • Fever
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea that persists for more than a day or two
  • Prolonged poor appetite or weight loss
  • Persistent vaginal bleeding
  • Burning with urination, or frequent urination
  • Pain that, while mild and self-limiting, is frequently recurrent

If You Opt For Self-Care

If you decide to self-treat your abdominal pain, try to drink frequent sips of water or clear liquids, and skip food for at least several hours.

Stay away from NSAIDS or other pain medicines unless your doctor says it’s OK. And reassess your symptoms every few hours - or any time you notice new symptoms - to decide whether it’s time to see a doctor.

Sources:

Heading RC. Prevalence of upper gastrointestinal symptoms in the general population: a systematic review. Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl 1999; 231:3.

Morino M, Pellegrino L, Castagna E, et al. Acute nonspecific abdominal pain: A randomized, controlled trial comparing early laparoscopy versus clinical observation. Ann Surg 2006; 244:881.

Jung PJ, Merrell RC. Acute abdomen. Gastroenterol Clin North Am 1988; 17:227.

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