What is abdominal pain?
Abdominal pain is pain felt anywhere in the area between the bottom of the ribs and the pelvis. Most Australians will experience abdominal pain at some point in their lives.
Abdominal pain can be serious, but most abdominal pain gets better on its own without needing any special treatment.
People sometimes refer to abdominal pain as stomach pain, stomach ache, stomach cramps, tummy pain, sore stomach, wind pain or belly ache.
Pain or discomfort in the abdomen can be mild or severe. It may come on suddenly (acute); it could be something that you experience from time to time (recurrent); or it could be an ongoing symptom that lasts for more than 3 months (chronic). It can also start off mild and steadily worsen (progressive). Pain that comes and goes in waves is referred to as colicky pain.
This page is about abdominal pain in adults, or anyone over the age of 12. Go to this page for information on abdominal pain in children.
What other symptoms relate to abdominal pain?
Pain in the abdomen may be experienced as aching, stabbing, burning, twisting, cramping, dull, or a gnawing pain.
The pain may also be accompanied by other symptoms, such as a feeling of discomfort in the abdomen, bloating, constipation, wind (farting, gas or flatulence), belching (burping), fever, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, fever, dehydration or loss of appetite
The pain might be steady or it might get stronger. It can be made worse — or it can be improved — by changes in posture or by coughing.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the abdominal pain Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
Describing the pattern and location of your symptoms to a doctor may help them in identifying the cause of your abdominal pain. These causes include:
- Peptic ulcer — The pain is often felt in the upper abdomen, as a knife-like pain which goes through to the back.
- Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) — The pain usually causes a central burning pain that develops just under the breastbone, and may rise upwards. It may be accompanied by belching.
- Appendicitis — The pain usually starts near the navel (belly button) before moving down to the lower right abdomen when it becomes more constant.
- Gallstones or gallbladder irritation — The pain is felt in the upper right abdomen, back or right shoulder.
- Lower abdominal pain — Also referred to as ‘lower stomach pain’, it is probably coming from your bowel.
- Period pain — This is usually a dull, cramping pain, felt low down, which may radiate through to the back.
The cause of the pain will affect how long your symptoms will last. Gastroenteritis usually lasts a few days before it clears up. Food poisoning may take a few hours or days to develop and then may last for several days.
What causes abdominal pain?
Abdominal pain is frequently caused by a problem in the digestive tract (the gut). However, it can also be caused by other organs located in the abdomen, such as the kidneys. Large blood vessels, such as the aorta are also found in the abdomen and may give rise to pain. Abdominal pain can even be caused by some medicines.
Causes of abdominal pain connected to the gut include:
- trapped wind (gas) or indigestion
- diarrhoea and constipation
- gastroenteritis and food poisoning
- lactose intolerance
- GORD and hiatus hernia
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- inflammatory bowel disease
- diverticulitis and diverticular disease
- gallstones, gallbladder problems, liver problems
- bowel obstruction
Causes of abdominal pain related to other organs include:
- period pain
- kidney stones
- urinary tract infection
- pelvic inflammatory disease
- heart problems, such as angina or heart failure
Some medicines can cause abdominal pain as a side effect, including:
- anti-inflammatory medicines
- medicines to help manage the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
Some of the causes of abdominal pain are short-term (acute), whereas others are long-term or ongoing (chronic) conditions. Find more information about the underlying causes of abdominal pain here.
When should I see my doctor?
In some cases, you should seek urgent medical attention or consult a doctor if you have abdominal pain.
If you have a sudden, severe, incapacitating pain in your abdomen, go immediately to your nearest emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
You should also seek urgent medical attention if you have pain that:
- is severe and/or getting worse
- has lasted for several hours or more
- wakes you from sleep
- is spreading to your neck, chest or shoulders
- makes it difficult to swallow
Urgent medical attention is also required if you have abdominal pain accompanied by
- bleeding from your bowel or blood in your urine
- vaginal bleeding that is not associated with your menstrual cycle
- a change in your bowel habits
- being unable to pee (pass urine), poo (have a bowel motion) or fart (pass gas)
- persistent vomiting
- fever (a temperature of 38 degrees Celcius or higher)
- swelling of the abdomen
- unexplained weight loss
- skin that appears yellow
If you are experiencing pain high up in your abdomen that is made worse by exercise it could be angina or a heart attack. If you, or someone near you is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.
If you are pregnant and experiencing abdominal pain, check with your doctor or midwife. Abdominal pains are common in pregnancy, but should always be checked out.
If your abdominal pain does not match the situations above, but it is recurrent (keeps coming back) or persistent (ongoing), or it started mild but is worsening, you should still consult a doctor.