What is Abdominal Pain?

What is Abdominal Pain?

Abdominal pain is a blanket term for any discomfort or pain in the abdominal region. We often call this pain a “stomach ache,” “stomach pain,” “belly pain,” or “cramps.” Abdominal pain can have many causes and may be the temporary result of a minor irritant or a sign of something more serious affecting an organ in the abdomen, like the stomach, liver, intestines, or pancreas.

Types of Abdominal Pain


Abdominal pain can occur in several areas of the abdomen, and the location of your pain may tell you something about the cause.

Types of abdominal pain include:

  • Upper abdominal pain. Pain in the top of the abdomen can have many causes, as many of the body’s organs are located in this region. Upper abdomen pain could indicate a problem in your esophagus, stomach, spleen, kidneys, or liver. It often results from a temporary issue in the digestive tract, such as stomach flu or food intolerance.
  • Lower abdominal pain. The lower abdomen is home to the intestines, ureters, and – in women –  the ovaries and uterus. Pain in this area may be due to digestive tract problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Women may experience lower abdominal pain because of menstrual cramps.
  • Right-side abdominal pain. The right side of the abdomen holds the appendix, kidneys, gallbladder, liver, and bile ducts. Pain on the right side of your belly may indicate a condition affecting one of these organs.
  • Left-side abdominal pain. The left side of the abdomen is home to the pancreas, spleen and kidneys. Pain on this side can indicate problems originating in one of these organs.

Signs & Symptoms of Abdominal Pain


Abdominal pain can manifest in many ways and at various levels of severity. Pay attention to what kind of pain you are experiencing, how long it lasts, and how severe it is – this information can help your doctor narrow down the cause of the pain.

Abdominal pain symptoms include:

  • Generalized pain is felt in more than half of your abdominal area, and is often indicative of indigestion, a stomach flu or gas.
  • Localized pain is felt only in one specific area of the abdomen, and can indicate a problem with one organ like appendicitis in the appendix.
  • Colicky pain comes and goes in waves and can be quite severe. Colicky pain can be a sign of kidney stones or gallstones.
  • Cramp-like pain is often caused by bloating, gas or another mild gastrointestinal issue.

What Causes Abdominal Pain?


Dozens of conditions and injuries can cause abdominal pain, which can be just one of many symptoms that your doctor will consider when making a diagnosis for the cause of your pain. Pain can range from mild to severe and may occur suddenly, repeatedly, or get worse over time. How and when abdominal pain occurs can help narrow down the cause.
Common causes of abdominal pain include:

  • Acute pain. Severe abdominal pain appears in an otherwise healthy person and may last for hours at a time. Acute pain can be a sign of a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. Patients with the following conditions often report acute abdominal pain prior to diagnosis: appendicitis, kidney stones, ectopic pregnancy, or a lacerated spleen or liver.
  • Chronic or episodic pain. Chronic pain can last many months and may be near constant or more episodic (intermittent). If you’ve been experiencing abdominal pain consistently over time, it can be a sign of a condition like endometriosis, gallstones, gastritis, or pelvic inflammatory disease. Your doctor can run tests to determine the presence of a condition capable of causing chronic abdominal pain.
  • Progressive pain. Abdominal pain that worsens over time (and is often accompanied by other symptoms) can be a sign of a serious condition. Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancers of the gastrointestinal system all cause progressive abdominal pain.

Risk Factors for Abdominal Pain


Since abdominal pain can have many causes, it’s difficult to isolate individual risk factors for experiencing the condition. However, there are some factors you can consider to determine your chances of experiencing abdominal pain from certain causes.

These include:

  • Medical history. A history of bowel disorders or prior abdominal surgery can increase your risk of experiencing abdominal pain. Follow your doctor’s advice for managing any conditions affecting your gastrointestinal system, including avoiding certain foods or taking medication.
  • Family history. Some conditions that cause abdominal pain are hereditary, so knowing your family history can help you stay ahead of screenings and checkups for certain diseases. Catching a disease early often leads to a better prognosis, so being aware of family history can help you avoid serious abdominal pain in the future.

When to See a Doctor

When to See a Doctor

Mild abdominal pain is common and usually isn’t a cause for concern. Conditions such as indigestion and gas frequently cause mild pain or abdominal discomfort but do not generally require medical attention. However, sometimes, abdominal pain should prompt you to visit your doctor.

If you are experiencing severe pain or any of the following symptoms in conjunction with abdominal pain, you should seek medical attention:

  • Blood in stool
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Skin that appears yellow
  • Severe tenderness in the abdomen
  • Swelling of the abdomen or shortness of breath

NewYork-Presbyterian’s gastrointestinal experts can recognize the symptoms of serious causes of abdominal pain and refer you to a specialist if needed.

When to seek emergency care

There are rare times when abdominal pain should be considered an emergency situation. These include severe abdominal pain, fever, pain resulting from trauma or an accident, vomiting blood, and feeling pressure in the chest along with abdominal pain.



While every cause of abdominal pain is not preventable, you can take steps to lessen your chances of experiencing abdominal pain from common causes:

  • Eating more slowly and changing the time of day you eat can help mitigate abdominal pain from gas and indigestion.
  • Avoiding certain food and drink, like dairy products, alcohol, or gluten can also help you avoid abdominal pain that stems from food intolerances.
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Abdominal Pain Care

NewYork-Presbyterian is the best choice for prompt appointments and flexible hours if you experience abdominal pain and need medical care. With honed expertise and most insurances accepted, our multidisciplinary gastrointestinal team can help determine the cause of your abdominal pain and work quickly to alleviate symptoms.