What Is Wrong With My Stomach?

Abdominal problems don't always start in the stomach

Woman holding her stomach in pain
Kondoros Eva Katalin/Getty Images

At some point or another, everyone deals with digestive problems, whether it's constipation, diarrhea or just a general woozy feeling. It's frustrating and disconcerting to think that something may be wrong, but research shows the enteric nervous system, which regulates the body's gastrointestinal system (aka the gut), plays a much larger role in overall health than previously thought. 

If you're not sure what the problem is, here's a list of some of the more common causes of stomach and digestive issues.

 For serious stomach or digestive symptoms, especially blood in the stool or severe pain, see a healthcare professional as soon as you can. 

Chronic Upper Abdominal Stomach Problems

Although the location of symptoms and the location of the problem don't always line up exactly, there are several digestive disorders that are related to digestive organs higher up on the "conveyor belt" that is your digestive system. Symptoms of upper abdominal problems may include excessive burping, burning in the throat or upper chest, nausea, vomiting, or pain in the upper abdomen.

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): GERD is the main cause of the symptom commonly known as heartburn. When the lower esophageal sphincter isn't functioning properly, stomach contents back up (or reflux) into the esophagus. It's a very common condition, marked by a burning sensation in the upper abdomen, usually after eating.
  • Peptic ulcers: A peptic ulcer is an erosion of the lining of the stomach or duodenum caused by stomach acid and pepsin (a digestive enzyme). Symptoms can include bleeding, gastric obstruction and in some cases, life-threatening perforation. Most peptic ulcers are caused by an H. pylori infection.
  • Gastritis: Gastritis is an inflammation of the stomach lining with symptoms similar to heartburn. It's usually treated with medication to reduce stomach acid.
  • Gastroparesis: Also referred to as delayed gastric emptying, gastroparesis is a disorder in which the stomach takes too long to empty its contents, usually caused by damage to the stomach nerves. If you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, you're more at risk for gastroparesis.
  • Gallstones: Gallstones can form in the gallbladder when bile hardens. When gallstones block the cystic duct of the gallbladder, you may feel severe pain. Some gallstones never cause symptoms while others need to be removed surgically. 

Chronic Lower Abdominal Stomach Problems

As with upper abdominal symptoms, pain in the lower abdomen does not necessarily mean that the problem lies in the intestines, as pain can radiate. However, there are several digestive disorders that can contribute to intestinal symptoms, including lower abdominal pain, cramping, and bowel movement problems. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • Celiac disease: People who have celiac disease can't eat gluten since it damages the small intestine. This is a condition you would need to have diagnosed by a healthcare provider, and it's often mistaken for other gastrointestinal disorders before being recognized.
  • Diverticular disease: Diverticulitis is the inflammation of diverticula, which are protrusions in the walls of the intestines. The presence of these sacs is known as diverticulosis. Most people with diverticulosis may never experience symptoms. Diverticulitis, on the other hand, produces sharp pains in the lower left abdomen, usually accompanied by a fever. If you suspect diverticulitis, see a healthcare provider as soon as you can. If left untreated, diverticulitis can cause life-threatening complication.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: This is an umbrella term for two separate conditions: ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Both are chronic conditions that require lifelong monitoring and treatment. 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): People dealing with this very common digestive disorder have recurring abdominal pain, and either diarrhea, constipation or both.

Signs of Stomach Cancer

Stomach cancer often, although not always, presents with some "red-flag" symptoms. These include:

  • Signs of rectal bleeding, such as blood in the stool
  • Persistent lack of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme, persistent fatigue
  • Frequent fevers
  • Persistent, recurrent pain
  • Anemia

When You Need to See a Gastroenterologist

A healthcare provider is best equipped to assess what may be behind your digestive distress. If you are experiencing any "red-flag symptoms", such as rectal bleeding, it is essential that you seek immediate medical care.

If you have a family physician, you will probably want to start there. However, it is likely that they will refer you to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases and disorders of your digestive tract.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Cancer.

Katz PO, Gerson LB, Vela MF. Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. Am J Gastroenterol 2013; 108:308.

Lau JY, Sung J, Hill C, et al. Systematic Review of the Epidemiology of Complicated Peptic Ulcer Disease: Incidence, Recurrence, Risk Factors and Mortality. Digestion 2011; 84:102.

National Institute of Digestive and Diabetes and Kidney Disease. Celiac Disease.

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Diverticular Disease. Cedars-Sinai.edu 2011.

Tack J, Vanuytsel T, Corsetti M. "Modern Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: More Than Motility." Digestive Diseases 2016;34:566-573.

Continue Reading