Stomach Cramps as a Symptom of Colon Cancer

When Could Stomach Cramps Signal Colon Cancer?

Stomach cramps and colon cancer. Doctor comforting a patient experiencing severe abdominal pain
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Colon cancer is usually an insidious disease, which means that it can start and grow silently without setting off any warning bells or whistles in your body. However, stomach cramps, gas, bloating and abdominal pain can be symptoms of colon cancer.

The question about whether or not stomach cramps are a symptom of colon cancer for you personally is difficult and important from both sides.

It's been found that most people with symptoms of colon cancer do not have colon cancer.  On the other hand, we've learned that there is a significant delay between when people notice signs of colon cancer and when it is actually diagnosed.  This delay - which averages around 5 months - could result in a colon cancer spreading further and lowering the chance of a cure.

Since the answer isn't a simple yes or no, let's look at some of the factors that increase or decrease the risk that the pain in your stomach is colon cancer,  First let's define your pain.

What Is That Feeling?

The word "cramp" covers a vast array of discomforts in your abdomen, ranging from a slight discomfort or twinge to severe, disabling pains. Your colon may or may not be involved in the pain. Describe for the doctor exactly what you feel with specific words – this helps the doctor discern what is going on in your body more quickly than simply stating, "I have stomach cramps."

It's hard to think when your stomach is cramping or pain is kicking in. While you are waiting to see your doctor, remember the PQRST pneumonic to better describe your pains:

  • Pain – Describe what you were doing when the cramps started and stopped. Do the cramps start after eating? When are you resting? During exercise?
  • Quality – Use exact words to describe the cramps, such as colicky, stinging, sharp, constant, intermittent, or even dull.
  • Region – Describe the exact location of the cramps in your abdomen. They may be generalized (felt in the majority of your abdomen) or you may feel them on your back or on one side.
  • Severity – Use a 0 through 10 scale, where 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you have ever endured. Since we all experience pain differently, this will help the doctor understand how serious or life-altering these cramps are to you.
  • Timing – Describe how long the cramps last if they are intermittent, or during what timeframe they occur (morning, afternoon, evening).

It's important to remember that the severity of your symptoms does not always correlate with the severity of your problem. You may have severe, sharp cramps with the stomach flu, but only minor twinges with colon cancer (or vice versa).

What Causes the Cramping?

Aside from a diagnosis of colon cancer, stomach cramps have many different causes, which can be benign (non-life-threatening) or more serious medical problems. Some causes of stomach cramps may include:

When Should I Worry?

Although the majority of stomach cramps are caused by non-serious conditions, you will want to talk to your doctor. The haste with which you schedule that doctor's appointment is up to you, but prolonged stomach cramps (longer than 24 hours) or stomach cramps in conjunction with a fever should be assessed as soon as possible. Pay special attention to any other symptoms you have along with the stomach cramps, especially symptoms that are associated with colon cancer, including:

  • Fatigue – feeling "worn out" easily despite being well-rested
  • Blood in the stool
  • Change in bowel habits – stool size, frequency and urgency
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomach bloating or excessive gas
  • Decreased appetite
  • Anemia – also known as a low blood count
  • Unintentional weight loss – weight loss in the absence of dieting or attempts to lose weight

Stomach Cramps Due to Colon Cancer

Most frequently, abdominal pains or cramps are associated with cancers on the left side of your colon. Cramps may also be associated with advanced colon cancers -– when the tumor grows through the colon, it can irritate the lining of your abdomen and causes a cramping pain. Cancerous tumors can bleed, which can irritate the lining of the abdomen or the other adjacent organs. Less frequently, large tumors may cause bowel obstructions, which can result in thin, ribbon-like stools or a complete blockage of stool passage.

At Your Doctor's Appointment

Your doctor will take a complete medical history and perform a physical examination. He or she may order screening tests such as a colonoscopy to rule out cancer and other, more serious causes of stomach cramps. The tests may include x-rays, blood work, and a colonoscopy. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have a family history of colon cancer or other cancers, especially in first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children).


Adelstein, B., Macaskill, P., Chan, S., Katelaris, P., and L. Irwig. Most bowel cancer symptoms do not indicate colorectal cancer and polyps: a systematic review. BMC Gastroenterology. 2011. 11:65.

Esteva, M., Leiva, A., Ramos, M. et al. Factors related to symptom duration until diagnosis and treatment of symptomatic colorectal cancer. BMC Cancer. 2013. 13:87.

National Cancer Institute. Gastrointestinal Complaints – Patient Version (PDQ). Updated 05/12/15. 

U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Abdominal Pain. Updated 05/12/14.