Abdominal pain

Pain in your abdomen (stomach or puku) is common. It can be hard to know what is causing it and many people never find out the exact cause. The important thing is knowing when and how you can take care of your symptoms at home and when you need to see a doctor.

man with abdominal painYour abdomen is the part of your body between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hips. It often gets called your stomach, tummy or puku, but there are lots of other organs in that area too.

Most pain in this part of your body will pass quickly and can be treated at home by yourself or with medication from your pharmacist. This includes when you have:

  • a burning pain or discomfort after eating (indigestion)
  • feeling bloated (trapped wind)
  • constipation (can’t poo).
 See your family doctor if:
  • your pain is no better after two hours of home care
  • your abdomen is very painful, for example, if you can’t walk or need to walk bent over, or feel you need to hold your tummy all the time
  • your pain gets worse over time, or becomes sharper or stronger in one place
  • your abdomen feels bloated or sticks out more than usual
  • you can’t stop vomiting
  • you haven’t had a bowel motion (poo) for three days
  • you’ve lost your appetite
  • there is blood in your vomit, urine (pee) or bowel motion, or vaginal bleeding that isn’t a period
  • you have other symptoms as well, such as fever or dizziness, especially if they get worse or new symptoms develop.1
Call 111 and ask for an ambulance if you:
  • have sudden, severe stomach pain
  • have pain when you touch your stomach
  • are vomiting blood or a ground coffee-like substance
  • have bloody or black, sticky poo
  • collapse, or become pale and clammy
  • can’t breathe
  • can’t pee
  • have diabetes and are vomiting
  • the pain spreads up to your chest, neck or shoulder.2

What are the causes of abdominal pain?

It can be difficult to know what is causing pain in your abdomen (puku), and many people do not get a diagnosis for it.3 However, it is most often caused by a problem in your gut (digestive system), such as:

 The pain may also be a symptom of another condition, such as:

Pain can also be caused by indigestion, diarrhoea (watery or runny poo) or constipation (hard to poo) from medication, such as aspirin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), tranquilisers, iron supplements, cough medicine, antibiotics, or cardiovascular heart medications.

If your child has a sore stomach, see gastroenteritis in childrenconstipation in children and vomiting in children.

How is abdominal pain diagnosed?

As well as asking where the pain is, your doctor will ask you to describe your pain, so notice whether it is sharp, stabbing, cramping or a dull ache. Also, notice whether the pain is there all the time or if it comes and goes in waves.

Your doctor will also ask if the pain came on suddenly (acute), or whether you have had it for a while (chronic). They will also want to know if you have been sick (vomited) or had diarrhoea (watery, runny poo).

Depending on what they think is causing your stomach pain, they may want to do further tests.

What is the treatment for abdominal pain?

 The treatment will depend on the cause of the abdominal pain. Once you know the cause of your pain, you can find out more on the page for that condition.

What self-care can I do to relieve abdominal pain?

If your abdominal pain is mild, and there are no concerning symptoms, you can take care of yourself and reduce pain and discomfort by:

  • drinking plenty of water
  • putting a heat pack or hot water bottle where it hurts, or having a warm bath
  • taking paracetamol to ease pain,3 but not aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs, unless advised to do so by a doctor, as these can make abdominal pain worse
  • avoiding alcohol, tea and coffee
  • avoiding eating, and then starting again when you feel better on bland foods (such as rice, crackers, bananas or toast)
  • lying down and resting
  • asking your pharmacist about charcoal tablets or similar for wind pain, medicines to ease spasms or to stop diarrhoea
  • telling your doctor if your medication causes indigestion, constipation or diarrhoea.

Support

If you know the cause of your abdominal pain, you can go to the Health Navigator page for that condition to find out what support is available to you.

Call Healthline phone 0800 611 116 for free advice from registered nurses 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if you are unsure about what to do.

How can I prevent abdominal pain?

You can keep your gut healthy by eating lots of fruit and vegetables, as well as other foods high in fibre, such as whole grains and legumes. Find out more about healthy eating

You can reduce the chance of food poisoning and gut infections by following food safety practices and keeping your hands clean.

Find out about preventing specific conditions here:

Learn more

Abdominal pain Patient Info, UK, 2015
Abdominal pain in adults Better Health, Australia, 2012
Beat the bloat NHS Choices, UK, 2016
Flatulence NHS Choices, Uk, 2015

References

  1. Ministry of Health. Abdominal pain. 2014. health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/diseases-and-illnesses/abdominal-pain
  2. NHC Choices, UK, 2016. nhs.uk/conditions/stomach-ache-abdominal-pain/Pages/Introduction.aspx
  3. Hunt, R et al. Coping with Common Gastrointestinal Symptoms in the Community: A Global Perspective on Heartburn, Constipation, Bloating, and Abdominal Pain/Discomfort May 2013, WHIO Guideline. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, August 2014, 48, 7: 567–578. http://journals.lww.com/jcge/Fulltext/2014/08000/Coping_With_Common_Gastrointestinal_Symptoms_in.4.aspx
  4. Manterola C, Vial M, Moraga J, Astudillo P. Analgesia in patients with acute abdominal pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD005660. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0013615/

 

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 23 Mar 2017