Abdominal pain is a symptom that almost everyone has experienced. While you should seek help for serious abdominal pain, you often can treat abdominal pain at home with medication.
Learn more about what causes abdominal pain and what medications can help it.
What Is Abdominal Pain?
Abdominal pain is discomfort felt anywhere in your stomach region, which ranges from beneath your ribs to your pelvis. Although abdominal pain can be uncomfortable, it is often harmless and usually stops within a couple of hours or a few days.
The pain can range from mild to severe, but the severity may not reflect the seriousness of the problem causing it. For example, someone with a common stomach virus may experience intense pain. Yet more serious conditions may only cause mild pain or none at all.
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What Causes Abdominal Pain?
A variety of conditions — spanning from benign to life-threatening — can trigger abdominal pain. Depending on the condition, the pain can be temporary (acute) or occur over weeks, months, or years (chronic).
Acute abdominal pain
Most common causes of abdominal discomfort — including gas pains, indigestion, or a pulled muscle — are not cause for concern. Other common causes of short-term pain in the abdomen include:
- Post-viral irritable bowel syndrome.
- Food allergies.
- Lactose intolerance.
- Food poisoning.
- Stomach viruses.
- Bowel obstruction.
Problems in one part of your body (such as your lungs, heart, or pelvic area) can trigger pain in your abdomen. Common causes include:
- Menstrual cramps.
- Urinary tract infections.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease.
Chronic abdominal pain
Ongoing pain in your abdomen or pelvis can last weeks or months. Assuming a doctor has ruled out other causes, chronic abdominal pain may come from:
- Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of your pancreas).
- Abdominal surgery (pain at the incision site or internal organ pain).
- Ovarian cysts.
- Gastritis or other gastrointestinal diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease.
- GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease or acid reflux).
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Some cancers.
- Recurring indigestion with no obvious cause (functional dyspepsia).
When Should I Go to the Emergency Department for Abdominal Pain?
Seek care for abdominal pain if you experience:
- Sudden, severe pain.
- Pain that gradually increases in severity.
- Vomiting blood or passing bloody or tar-like stool.
- Abdominal pain that is accompanied by a fever or chest, shoulder, or neck pain.
- Weight loss.
If your pain doesn’t go away after a few days, you should visit your doctor.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medicine for Stomach Pain
If your stomach pain is due to indigestion, gas, or heartburn, taking an OTC medicine might make you feel better. Different medicines treat different causes of stomach pain:
- Antacids treat burning pain due to heartburn.
- Some fiber supplements or antidiarrheal medicines can treat diarrhea.
- Fiber supplements and laxatives may relieve pain in your lower belly due to constipation.
- Antinausea medicines can help relieve nausea and indigestion.
- Enzyme supplements help you digest lactose or other proteins or carbs that cause gas, bloating, or diarrhea.
You shouldn’t take aspirin or other NSAID pain relievers for stomach pain without talking to your doctor. These can damage the lining of your stomach and cause gastrointestinal bleeding if you take them for a long time.
If you’re not sure which OTC product is best for your stomach pain, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. They can recommend the right medicine for your symptoms. To avoid any interactions, be sure to tell them about any other medicines you take.
If the OTC medication does not help after a short time, call your doctor.
Medicine for Long-Term Abdominal Pain
Some chronic GI conditions can cause long-term abdominal pain or pain that worsens when your condition flares. If OTC medicines don’t help, your doctor might recommend a prescription medicine. These prescriptions help by treating the root cause of your abdominal pain.
- Steroids and anti-inflammatory medicines reduce inflammation in your GI tract.
- Antibiotics clear an infection that’s causing pain or diarrhea.
- Prescription heartburn medicines block excess stomach acid.
If your pain is severe, your doctor may add a prescription pain killer. Pain medicines have side effects, so it’s best to use them sparingly.
When to Seek Pain Medicine for Abdominal Pain
It’s essential to tell your health care provider if you have ongoing stomach pain. If they don’t succeed in treating it, you may receive a referral to a pain medicine specialist. These doctors treat the symptoms of your pain, not the condition that causes the pain.
At UPMC, our pain medicine specialists use a multi-modal approach to treating abdominal pain. Treatments can include:
- Nerve pain pills (research shows that narcotic pills don’t work well on abdominal pain).
- Physical therapy to strengthen core muscles.
- Referrals for cognitive-based therapy and pain psychology.
Pain medicine treatment can significantly reduce some people’s pain. Some people may always have some baseline pain, but they’re much more functional when their pain decreases.
Treating chronic abdominal pain with pain medicine
Pain medicine to treat chronic abdominal or pelvic pain is usually not the first step in the process.
Trent Emerick, MD, a pain medicine doctor at UPMC, says he usually sees people after they have a diagnosis. This means they’re already getting treatment for the cause of their pain.
“Abdominal pain is a challenging type of pain to treat, because oftentimes there is no cure, per se,” Dr. Emerick says. “It’s managing symptoms and trying to reduce portions of the patient’s pain.”
Dr. Emerick works to reduce people’s abdominal pain through a combination of different treatments. He explains that people who incorporate as many treatment options as possible see the best results. However, there’s no “quick fix” for most chronic abdominal pain, he says.
“Oftentimes it becomes about lifestyle management, which is why it’s so important to incorporate all of those different things,” he says.
How to Prevent Abdominal Pain
Due to the wide variety of ailments that can cause abdominal pain, not all abdominal discomfort is preventable. To lower your chances of developing abdominal discomfort, you can do the following:
- Maintain a healthy diet of fiber-rich foods.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Exercise regularly and participate in stress reduction activities.
- Avoid over-eating and obesity.
- See your primary care physician regularly.
- Obtain a screening colonoscopy as directed by your primary care physician.
- Limit alcohol and NSAIDs.
For more information on abdominal pain, visit the website for the Pain Medicine Program of the UPMC Digestive Disorders Center.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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About Digestive Disorders
The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.