Just a belly ache … or something worse?

We all experience abdominal pain from time to time. Sometimes, the pain is dull. Other times, it’s more severe.


There are numerous potential causes, including constipation, acid reflux, appendicitis, kidney stones, urinary tract infections and others that are specific to men or women. But what are the most common causes that doctors see on a regular basis?

“By far, constipation is the cause I see most often,” said Sarah Joseph, MD, a family practice physician at OSF HealthCare. “After that, food intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, urinary tract infections, muscle strains and viral infections are other common causes.”

When to see a doctor

Like other aches and pains, abdominal pain sometimes shows up and then seems to end as quickly as it arrived. But for pain that lingers, it’s important to know when it’s OK to self-medicate at home, when you should make an appointment to see your doctor, and when you should rush to a hospital emergency department.

“A stomach ache may result from something you ate and typically is mild and goes away in a couple hours. If a person is backed up with stool due to constipation, taking a stool softener may help relieve the discomfort,” said Dr. Joseph. “However, there are times when waiting it out or taking over-the-counter medications aren’t the right approaches.”

For example:

  • If the pain is coming and going but isn’t severe, see your doctor.
  • If the pain is accompanied by a fever, see your doctor right away.
  • If the pain is severe or persisting and quickly escalating, immediately go to a hospital emergency department.

There are a number of questions a doctor will ask you when trying to pinpoint the cause of abdominal
pain, including:

  • How long have you had the pain?
  • Where is it located?
  • How severe is it?
  • What’s the quality of the pain? (burning, dull, sharp, stomach sensitivity to touch, etc.)
  • Is it constant or off and on?
  • Does anything make it better or worse? (eating, etc.)

When is surgery the answer?

Appendicitis is a prime example of when getting an immediate diagnosis is crucial and when surgery is required to correct the problem.

“The key with appendicitis is catching it early and having surgery to remove the appendix,” said Dr. Joseph. “If you wait too long and the appendix bursts, you risk serious infection or even death. It’s also important to know that the pain from appendicitis will get quite bad very quickly. People usually go from feeling fine to horrible within 24 hours, and they may also experience fever and nausea along with the abdominal pain.”

But there are a multitude of other scenarios in which emergency surgery could be necessary, she said.

“For instance, as odd as it may sound, a heart attack can present itself as abdominal pain. Kidney stones that are too large to pass, hernias of the groin in men and blockage of blood flow to the bowel are a few others.”

Simple preventive steps

Learn more about abdominal pain.

Health Library | OSF HealthCare.

But since constipation is one of the primary causes of abdominal pain, there are basic lifestyle choices that Dr. Joseph recommends for everyone.
“People need to get more fiber in their diet,” she said. “Exercise also helps the bowel’s ability to perform well, and over-the-counter probiotics can help the digestive tract function at its best.”

Last Updated: December 12, 2023

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About Author: Luke Legner

Luke Legner is a writing coordinator at OSF HealthCare. He joined the Ministry in April 2021 after several years working in corporate communications in the heavy equipment industry. A Pontiac native, he graduated from Illinois State University in 2002 where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication.

Luke and his wife, Ashley, reside in Bloomington and have one son and two daughters. When he’s not tackling a home improvement project, you can usually find Luke watching his beloved Chicago Cubs or The Andy Griffith Show.

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