What's a Stomachache?
Pain is the body's way of signaling that something is going on. Stomach pain alerts us to something that's happening inside us that we might not know about otherwise.
What Causes Belly Pain?
Some reasons for belly pain are obvious, like when someone gets hit in the gut or eats spoiled macaroni salad. Oher times, it might be hard to figure out. With so many organs in the abdomen, different problems can have similar symptoms.
Here are some of the things that cause tummy troubles:
Bacterial infections cause what we call "food poisoning." Bacteria are also responsible for other conditions that may give a person belly pain, such as:
- urinary tract infections
- strep throat
- sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- the rare condition toxic shock syndrome
Viruses, another type of infection, are behind what we call "stomach flu," or gastroenteritis (pronounced: gas-troe-en-teh-RYE-tiss).
Bacteria and viruses both can pass easily from person to person. To avoid them:
- Wash your hands well and often.
- Don't share cups, straws, or utensils with others.
Irritation and Inflammation
When one of the body's internal organs is irritated or swollen, that can bring on belly pain. Pain from problems like appendicitis, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease is the body's way of telling us to get medical help.
Food reactions can be more than eating too much or basic indigestion. When people can't digest certain foods, doctors say they have a food intolerance. Lactose intolerance, for example, causes belly pain when someone eats milk products. If you notice pain or other symptoms like gas, bloating, or diarrhea after eating certain foods, call your doctor.
Conditions like celiac disease (a reaction to proteins in some grains) or food allergies (like peanut allergy) are different from food intolerance. They involve immune system reactions that can actually harm the body beyond causing a temporary reaction. Someone who has a true food allergy must always avoid that food.
The digestive system isn't the only cause of bellyaches. Menstrual cramps are a common cause of pain in the reproductive organs. Infections in the reproductive system, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or other STDs, also can cause belly pain in girls.
Women often feel nausea during pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancies (when the pregnancy implants in the wrong place) can cause abdominal pain.
Because problems like ectopic pregnancy need quick treatment, girls who have belly pain and think they might be pregnant should call a doctor right away. And girls who have had unprotected sex should be tested for STDs. Untreated STDs can cause problems like infertility and chronic belly or pelvic pain.
Always use a condom if you have sex to protect against STDs and pregnancy.
Some diseases or defects can affect how the organs do their jobs, causing pain. Crohn's disease can make the intestinal wall swell and scar so much that it may block the intestine.
Hernias can also block the intestines, as can growths like tumors. Torsion is a medical term that means "twisting." Torsion can affect the intestines, ovaries, and testicles, cutting off blood supply or or affecting how they work. These need to be checked by a health care provider right away.
How Do Doctors Find the Cause of a Stomachache?
To find the cause of a stomachache, doctors ask about:
- your symptoms
- illnesses you've had in the past
- health conditions that other family members have
Be honest with your doctor, even if a symptom seems embarrassing.
The doctor will do an exam and sometimes might order tests, such as an X-ray, ultrasound, or blood test. It all depends on what the doctor thinks is causing the problem.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Sometimes, what seems like one problem — food poisoning, for example — can turn out to be something more serious, like appendicitis.
Call your doctor if:
- the pain is very strong
- you're vomiting
- you already have another health condition
- the pain gets worse over time, doesn't go away, or wakes you up from sleep
Also let the doctor know if you:
- have a fever
- have pain when you pee
- have trouble pooping or peeing
- have blood in your poop or pee
- think the belly pain is from an injury
- might be pregnant
How Can I Feel Better?
Most bellyaches don't have a serious cause. They can happen for many different reasons, but most are easy to treat.
If stress or anxiety seem to be behind the pain, the doctor may recommend that you talk to a counselor or therapist. They help people figure out what's behind their stress and give advice on how to fix problems or handle them better.
Can Stomachaches Be Prevented?
Not all belly pain can be prevented. But to help avoid common types of stomachaches:
- Wash your hands before eating or preparing food, and after using the bathroom.
- Don't overeat, and try not to eat right before going to sleep.
- Drink plenty of water and eat fiber-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to keep food moving through your digestive system.
- Avoid foods that have passed their expiration date or or weren't stored properly.
- If you have a food allergy or intolerance, avoid eating foods that make you sick. If you have a food allergy, always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors, and know when you should use them.