When to See a Doctor for Abdominal Pain

Signs That You Need Immediate Medical Care

Doctor Examining Patients Abdomen
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Abdominal pain is a relatively common symptom that often needs no treatment. But there are also some serious conditions that cause abdominal pain which shouldn't be ignored. They may require medical attention and, in some cases, even emergency care.

Differentiating Abdominal Pains and Their Sources

The abdomen involves not only the digestive tract but other vital organs including the large intestine, stomach, appendix, kidneys, liver, and gallbladder.

Most pain in the abdomen won't be severe and will usually resolve with little, if any, treatment. An upset stomach, for example, can cause pain for an hour or two until your digestion normalizes. Similarly, abdominal cramping may be related to bloating and gas, while a generalized pain that is uncomfortable but not particularly severe is most often due to indigestion.

Many of these conditions can easily be treated with over-the-counter antacids or other medications.

On the other hand, an abdominal pain that is localized on a certain spot may be the sign of a problem with one of your organs. As with you stomach, the pain may be transient, but if it is sharp, persistent, or worsening, it is usually a good idea to have it checked out.

However, if pain radiates down from your chest and feels like heartburn, it may not be a gastrointestinal issue; it may be a heart attack. This is especially true if you have shooting pains down an arm, shortness of breath, and/or lightheadedness.

In this happens, seek medical attention immediately. Do not wait.

Knowing When to Contact Your Doctor

As a rule of thumb, any abdominal symptom should be checked by a doctor if you are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms:

  • pain that is dull and lasts for more than a week
  • pain that is significant and does not get better within 24 to 48 hours
  • pain that worsens and either gets more severe or occurs frequently
  • pain accompanied by bloating that lasts for more than two days
  • pain accompanied by unexplained weight loss
  • pain accompanied by diarrhea that lasts for more than five days
  • pain accompanied by fever
  • pain accompanied by a burning or painful sensation when urinating

When to Seek Emergency Care

More severe abdominal pain should never be ignored or allowed. Go to your nearest emergency room or call 911 if you have any of these symptoms:

  • persistent nausea and vomiting
  • pain accompanied by the inability to have a bowel movement (especially if you are vomiting)
  • abdominal pain while vomiting blood
  • profuse or continual bleeding from the bowels
  • gastric pain accompanied by shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • pain that is severe and sudden
  • severe tenderness when you touch your abdomen
  • skin that appears yellow
  • swelling of the abdomen
  • pain during pregnancy (or if you suspect you are pregnant)

Abdominal pain is a common symptom that can be caused by something as simple as a stomach virus or as serious as a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Don't take any chances if something doesn't seem right or feels "different" than your usual tummy ache. Get it checked.

Sources:

National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Abdominal Pain." Medline Plus: U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Bethesda, Maryland; updated November 2015.

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