Abdominal cramps can be caused from an array of issues originating from either dietary factors, gastrointestinal conditions like constipation or gas, or an infection. Stomach cramps can also be caused by anxiety, menstruation, or medication. Read below for other causes and treatment options.
Hallmarks of stomach cramps
Maybe you couldn't resist eating last weekend's takeout that was lingering in your fridge, or you decided to have an extra plate at the buffet — and now you're paying the price. Or, maybe you just started a new medication and are feeling a bit off.
We often refer to belly (or abdominal) pain as stomach cramps; however, the discomfort can also be due to irritation of the surrounding organs like the intestines. It's typical to experience symptoms around mealtime even though there are a variety of other factors that may be at work. Let's first examine some of the symptoms you may be experiencing.
Your stomach cramps can likely be described by:
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What causes stomach cramps
In many cases, certain foods or changes in diet are to blame. Stomach cramps after eating can be caused by stretching of the stomach after a prolonged fast, a particularly large amount of food, a rapid change in the pH (or acidity) of the stomach or ingestion of any number of toxins. It is most commonly a benign condition that resolves with time.
Infections are another common cause and can spread between people. In other situations, the problem is with the stomach and gastrointestinal organs themselves. Sometimes, unfortunately, the cause remains unknown. You can learn more about what may be causing your stomach cramps in the following sections.
First let's discuss general categories of causes and then specific conditions.
Dietary stomach cramps causes
Causes of stomach cramps may be related to your eating habits, especially if you change them suddenly.
- Overeating: If you overeat, your stomach will be forced to stretch to accommodate a higher volume of food.
- Spicy or oily foods: Eating new or rich dishes that your digestive system isn't used to can cause stomach discomfort.
- Dairy products: Some people's bodies are not able to break down dairy products like milk, yogurt, or ice cream.
- Gluten: This is a type of protein found in grains like wheat and barley that should be avoided by people with Celiac Disease.
Gastrointestinal stomach cramps causes
You may experience stomach cramps directly related to the functioning of your gastrointestinal system.
- Gas: You may feel relief from uncomfortable bloating caused by gas when it leaves your body.
- Constipation: Without regular bowel movements, you can quickly feel backed up and as if your stomach is distended or sticking out.
- Stomach ulcers: These painful sores in the lining of the stomach, also known as peptic ulcers, are often caused by bacteria.
- Functional abdominal pain: This is a common kind of pain that is not caused by a physical problem with the organs in the belly. This condition is also known as centrally mediated abdominal pain syndrome (CAPS), and treatment options are mainly supportive.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: Excess inflammation in your intestines is painful and may come with joint pains or rashes and often diarrhea or bowel movements with blood.
Infectious stomach cramps causes
You may be experiencing stomach cramps due to an infection.
- Viral infections: Most contagious cases of stomach cramps are caused by viruses and result in vomiting or diarrhea. They are especially common in children.
- Food poisoning: Spoiled or contaminated food can contain bacteria that make you feel sick. Be wary of food that has not been refrigerated or is past the expiration date.
Other stomach cramps causes
Other causes that can result in stomach cramps include the following.
- Anxiety: Frequent worry takes a physical toll on the body and proper treatment from a professional goes a long way in relieving symptoms.
- Medications: Certain drugs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) can be harsh on the stomach, especially when taken without food. There are suggestions to keep in mind when taking these medications to avoid abdominal cramps.
- Menstrual pain: Women can experience stomach cramps as a regular part of the menstrual cycle.
Menstrual cramps, also called dysmenorrhea, are actually contractions of the uterus as it expels its lining during a woman's monthly period.
A certain amount of mild cramping is normal, triggered by hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. However, painful cramps may be caused by underlying conditions such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, high prostaglandin levels, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID.)
Severe cramping may be present, as well as nausea, headache, and dull pain that radiates to the low back and thighs. It is most common in women under age 30 who smoke, have heavy and irregular periods, and have never given birth.
An obstetrician/gynecologist (women's specialist) can do tests for underlying conditions such as those mentioned above. Women over age 25 who suddenly begin having severe cramps should see a doctor to rule out the sudden onset of a more serious concern.
Treatment of mild cramping can be done with heating pads to the abdomen and with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen. Birth control pills, which regulate the menstrual cycle, are often effective in lessening cramps.
Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, lower back pain, abdominal pain that shoots to the back
Symptoms that always occur with menstrual cramps: abdominal pain (stomach ache)
Symptoms that never occur with menstrual cramps: being severely ill, disapearance of periods for over a year
If you ever heard of an entire cruise ship of people coming down with the same “stomach bug,” chances are that was norovirus. Fortunately, norovirus usually goes away on its own after a few days, but is pretty unpleasant and can spread extremely easily. The ...
Ovulation pain (mittelschmerz) or midcycle spotting
Mittelschmerz is a German word that translates as "middle pain." It refers to the normal discomfort sometimes felt by women during ovulation, which is at the midpoint of the menstrual cycle.
Each month, one of the two ovaries forms a follicle that holds an egg cell. The pain occurs when the follicle ruptures and releases the egg.
This is a dull, cramping sensation that may begin suddenly in only one side of the lower abdomen. In a few cases, there may be vaginal spotting. Mittelschmerz occurs about 14 days before the start of the next menstrual period.
Actual Mittelschmerz is not associated with nausea, vomiting, fever, or severe pelvic pain. These symptoms should be evaluated by a medical provider since they can indicate a more serious condition.
Diagnosis is made through patient history.
Treatment requires only over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve the pain. An oral contraceptive will stop the symptoms, since it also stops ovulation.
Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), last period approximately 2 weeks ago, vaginal bleeding, bloody vaginal discharge, pelvis pain
Symptoms that always occur with ovulation pain (mittelschmerz) or midcycle spotting: last period approximately 2 weeks ago
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder of the large intestine. It is characterized by recurrent abdominal pain and bowel movement issues that can be difficult to treat. Signs and symptoms of IBS are usually not severe or life-threateni...
Gallstones are small, round deposits found in the gallbladder, the organ where bile is stored. Gallstones can be subclassified a number of ways. Oftentimes, gallstones will be referred to as either cholesterol stones or pigment stones depending on the makeup of the gallstone.
Food poisoning, also called foodborne illness or "stomach flu," is an acute infection of the digestive tract from food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or other toxins. It actually has no relation to influenza.
Any food can become contaminated if not prepared under clean conditions, cooked thoroughly, or stored at cold temperatures. Meat, fish, dairy products, and fresh fruits and vegetables are some of the most easily contaminated foods.
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, and sometimes fever and chills.
Most people recover on their own with supportive care, meaning rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers.
However, dehydration can result if the vomiting and/or diarrhea are not controlled and IV fluids may be needed.
If there is also blurred vision, dizziness, or paralysis, the nervous system may be affected due to botulism. This is a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Proper food preparation and storage, along with frequent and thorough handwashing, is the best prevention.
Top Symptoms: nausea, abdominal pain (stomach ache), headache, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), dizziness
Symptoms that never occur with food poisoning: severe fever, being severely ill, bloody diarrhea
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a condition that can produce emotional and physical symptoms in women in the days leading up to their menstrual cycle. Common symptoms include bloating, cramping, headaches, irritability, fatigue, and sleep and appetite changes.
Constipation is a very common condition affecting the large intestine. It is characterized by difficulty passing stool, or passing stool less often. Commonly it is linked to not eating enough dietary fiber, not drinking enough fluids, or not getting enough exercise. Some medications can cause constipation as well.
Top Symptoms: stomach bloating, constipation, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), pain when passing stools, rectal bleeding
Symptoms that always occur with chronic constipation: constipation
Symptoms that never occur with chronic constipation: unintentional weight loss
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Ovarian torsion, also called adnexal torsion or tubo-ovarian torsion, is the twisting of the "stem," or supporting fleshy pedicle, of the ovary.
This condition can occur when a mass forms on the surface of the ovary and pulls it over. This is most often a complication of cystic ovaries.
It is most common in women under thirty or past menopause. It can occur during pregnancy.
Symptoms include severe, one-sided, lower abdominal pain with nausea and vomiting.
Diagnosis is made by ultrasound. The ovary will appear enlarged due to the torsion cutting off the circulation. There will be free pelvic fluid and a twisted pedicle.
Ovarian torsion is a medical emergency. The ovary can die due to loss of circulation, causing infection, abscess, or peritonitis. Surgery must be done to prevent tissue death and subsequent complications. In the majority of cases the affected ovary must be removed, which also removes the cyst or mass that caused the torsion.
Proper treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can help prevent at least one cause of ovarian torsion.
Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, nausea, moderate abdominal pain, loss of appetite
Symptoms that never occur with ovarian torsion: diarrhea, pain below the ribs, mild abdominal pain
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
New onset crohn's disease
Crohn's disease is an inflammation of the bowel. It is caused by a faulty immune system response which makes the body attack the lining of the intestines.
The disease usually appears before age thirty and can affect anyone. Those with a family history may be most susceptible. Smoking is a known risk factor.
Aggravating factors include stress, poor diet, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin.
Early symptoms usually develop gradually, but can appear suddenly. These include fatigue, loss of appetite, fever, mouth sores, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and blood in stool.
Untreated Crohn's disease can cause ulcers throughout the digestive tract as well as bowel obstruction, malnutrition, and deteriorating general health.
Diagnosis is made through blood test and stool sample test. Colonoscopy, CT scan, MRI, endoscopy, and/or enteroscopy may also be used.
Crohn's disease cannot be cured, but can be managed through reducing the inflammation. Antibiotics, corticosteroids, and immune system suppressors may be tried. Excellent nutrition, vitamin supplements, smoking cessation, and reduction in stress can be helpful.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, stomach bloating, loss of appetite, constipation, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps)
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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When are stomach cramps serious?
If you've recently started or changed your medication and have developed stomach cramps, it's best to talk with your doctor so this can be addressed. You should also see a doctor if you experience:
- Pain that starts suddenly, is severe or lasts greater than a day
- Bloody stool
- Inability to eat or drink
- Weight loss without trying
- A fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit
How to stop stomach cramps
Even though stomach cramps can be frustrating, there are plenty of treatment options available that can begin at home.
Many causes of stomach cramps will resolve on their own after just a few hours; however, keeping the following in mind may help you prevent them in the first place.
- Slow down at mealtime: If you tend to overeat, try having smaller meals, eating more slowly, and taking time to chew carefully. There are many benefits to chewing slowly.
- Eat with caution: If you're trying new or spicy food, go slow and don't be afraid to pass on certain options.
- Avoid common offenders: If you can't tolerate dairy or gluten, you should avoid these ingredients and be sure to check food labels carefully. Fortunately, foods are increasingly well-marked with common allergens.
Taking more medications or supplements may actually exacerbate your stomach cramps. Try the following methods first.
- Heat: Many people find gentle heat from a heating pad or hot water bottle to be soothing.
- Massage: Massaging the belly for a few minutes can sometimes do the trick as well, especially in children.
If you are not finding relief and your stomach cramps are persisting, you can try the following, often available over-the-counter.
- Gas-reliever: Over-the-counter drugs like simethicone are best for cramps with gas.
- Antacids: Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Zantac, and Pepcid can soothe the stomach.
- Laxative or stool softener: If you're feeling constipated, try Colace to soften stool and a stimulant laxative such as senna or Miralax to get things moving.
- Anti-diarrheal: On the other end of the spectrum, loperamide relieves diarrhea that may be associated with cramps.
- Antibiotics: This prescription option is only required if your doctor suspects a bacterial infection.
Stomach cramps FAQs
Is it normal to have stomach pain during pregnancy?
While heartburn or indigestion and vomiting are more common during pregnancy, abdominal pain — if it is unusual or particularly severe — may need examination by a medical professional. Stomach pain is worrisome if it is accompanied by vaginal bleeding, dizziness, clamminess, fever, or fainting.
What causes diarrhea?
Diarrhea is caused by either inadequate absorption of liquid by the intestines, causing watery stool, or hyperactivity of the stomach and intestines giving insufficient time for absorption of nutrients within the bowels. Essentially, food moves through the bowels too fast due to increased activity of both the stomach and the intestines.
Can you experience stomach cramps from menstruation?
Yes, it is possible to experience stomach cramps accompanying menstruation. During menstruation, prostaglandins — chemicals associated with female fertility — are released. This chemical can cause non-rhythmic contractions of the uterus at a low frequency. When the uterus contracts, it can squeeze out blood and block return blood flow. This lack of blood flow can cause the sensation of a cramp.
Questions your doctor may ask about stomach cramps
- Have you experienced any nausea?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Have you lost your appetite recently?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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