Your abdomen extends from below your chest to your groin. Some people call it the stomach, but your abdomen contains many other important organs.
Pain in the abdomen can come from any one of them. The pain may start somewhere else, such as your chest. Severe pain doesn’t always mean a serious problem. Nor does mild pain mean a problem is not serious.
Abdominal pain, or stomachache, affects many children. There are many possible causes of abdominal pain. It can be a sign of infection, constipation, or a serious medical condition. The pain may also be unrelated to a medical problem, and simply be your child’s way of expressing feelings of stress or anxiety (which does not mean that it doesn’t truly hurt!). Abdominal pain results in many doctor and ER visits, as well as many missed days of school.
The Different Types of Abdominal Pain
Some of our main organs are located in the abdominal region, so it’s hardly surprising that there are well over 150 different possible causes of abdominal pain. Knowing when pain in this area is serious enough to warrant medical care can help you make quick, wise decisions.
The Organs and Types of Pain
All these major organs are in the abdominal region, between the pelvic region and the chest:
Any one of them can run into problems that cause pain, from inflammation to infection from bacterial or viral causes, blockages or abnormal growths.
To make things even more interesting, abdominal pain doesn’t always come directly from organs located here since infection or disease elsewhere in the body can cause referred pain. For instance, a throat infection can lead to bacteria entering the digestive tract, bringing on constipation or diarrhea along with pain.
Referred Pain — As mentioned, problems in one area of the body can lead to pain in another. As an example. a hyperactive thyroid (where the thyroid produces too much hormone) speeds up the digestive process which causes discomfort in the gut and alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation. The patient may think they’ve eaten something that disagrees with them, whereas the actual problem lies in a small organ located in the neck.
Parietal Pain — When the peritoneal lining is irritated, the sharp, localized pain makes breathing difficult. The perineum is the membrane that lines the abdomen, supporting and protecting the organs. It has a large number of nerve fibers, so the resulting pain is keen.
Visceral Pain — Unlike referred pain, visceral pain comes directly from the organ involved. Because most of the organs in the abdomen don’t have many nerve fibers, the pain may be dull, hard to locate precisely, and may be either constant or intermittent.
The location of the pain is often an indication of the cause. For instance, pain in the lower left abdomen could be caused by a kidney infection or Crohn’s disease. Pain felt in the upper abdomen could be gallstones or liver inflammation. Some conditions, such as appendicitis, can cause pain anywhere in the abdomen.
Ulcers are another common cause of abdominal pain, creating pain in the mid- to upper regions. Peptic ulcers are sometimes painful after meals, and duodenal ulcers can often cause painful episodes in the middle of the night.
Diagnosing Abdominal Pain
A physical examination is the first step towards diagnosis of what’s causing the pain. How tender the abdomen is and where the pain is localized help the doctor decide which further tests are needed.
Further tests could include various scans, such as MRI or ultrasounds and X-Rays. Allowing specialists to look deeper into the organs, these scans can locate fractures, tumors, and areas of inflammation or ruptures.
Other types of tests include endoscopy (to examine the esophagus and stomach) or colonoscopy (to look inside the colon and intestines).
Patients may also be asked to provide urine or stool samples so specialists can investigate possible bacterial or parasitic infections.
When Abdominal Pain Needs Medical Aid
Not all stomachache pains need medical intervention since most will clear up without treatment. Here are some indications to look out for which may prompt you to seek urgent medical help:
- Severe pain that prevents you sitting comfortably
- High fever
- Persistent nausea or vomiting
- Swelling in the abdomen
- Trouble breathing
- Yellow eyes or skin
- Vomiting blood or bloody stools
There are other situations where the medical condition may not be an immediate emergency but which mean you should see a doctor as soon as possible, and these include:
- Any prolonged abdominal pain that you can’t explain
- Burning when urinating
- Unexplained weight loss
- No appetite
- Can’t keep food down
- Long periods of constipation
Preventing Abdominal Pain
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help prevent many types of pain, although not all depending on the cause.
Eating healthy food, avoiding too much fat or sugar and drinking plenty of water are both steps in the right direction. Getting regular exercise and not overeating are further precautions. For those with diagnosed conditions such as GERD or Crohn’s disease, following the doctor’s advice will help minimize any discomfort.
Pregnant women and young children need extra vigilance, but anyone who is worried by abdominal pain should see their doctor. It may be something that’s easily resolved, but if the pain persists it could indicate a more serious condition. It’s best to err on the safe side and have a false alarm than to risk further damage.