It might be more than just what you ate
A stomach ache can be tricky to pin down. Sometimes they show up for an identifiable reason (like a bad meal), but other times, they may show up for what feels like no reason at all. In many cases, stomach aches can be a strong sign that you need to change your diet and your stress levels.
In some cases, however, there may be more serious causes for your stomach pain.
“There are many different situations that can lead to pain in the digestive system,” said Geisinger gastroenterologist Dr. Joshua Obuch. “Everyone’s digestive tract is unique, and some people may be more sensitive to certain foods than others. These stomach aches are usually temporary and come and go within an hour or so of eating. Anxiety and stress can cause stomach aches, too, but those are also usually temporary. However, if you’re having consistent, painful stomach aches, see a doctor—it may be a sign of a gastrointestinal inflammatory disease.”
When going to the doctor, bring a list of any medications you’re taking, as well as your diet and exercise habits. Include what your symptoms are and what makes the symptoms better or worse.
Here are some of the most serious causes of stomach pain, and what you need to know about them.
For many people, especially those over 40, it’s not uncommon to develop small, bulging pouches in the large intestine. These bulges, known as diverticula, are normally harmless. However, if they get infected, they can cause stomach pain and digestive problems.
“When diverticula become inflamed, it becomes known as diverticulitis,” explained Dr. Obuch. “Diverticulitis can cause severe pain, fever, nausea and changes in bowel habits. Typically, diverticulitis is marked by a pain in the lower left side of the abdomen that lasts for more than 24 hours. If you notice this, especially if it’s accompanied by fever, nausea and/or vomiting, get medical attention.”
Minor cases of diverticulitis can be treated usually with antibiotics and adequate hydration. More severe cases require hospital stays to allow time for the bowels to rest.
In rare cases, diverticulitis can lead to more severe complications such as abscesses or blockages, so it’s important to be proactive in treating diverticulitis.
Persistent stomach pain may also be a sign of Crohn’s disease.
“Crohn’s disease is caused by the immune system attacking the digestive system, which causes inflammation,” said Dr. Obuch. “Crohn’s disease can result in serious flare-ups, which may require medical attention. People suffering from Crohn’s disease may have diarrhea, abdominal pain, malnutrition and weight loss, and in severe cases, they may need surgery to remove diseased bowel tissue.”
See your doctor if you are experiencing fever, diarrhea, blood in stools, reduced appetite, mouth sores and/or pain or drainage near the anus. Most people with Crohn’s disease are diagnosed before age 30, and people of Caucasian and Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at particularly high risk.
While it’s uncertain what causes Crohn’s disease, it’s likely influenced by heredity, since one in five people with Crohn’s disease have a family member who also have it. Although Crohn’s disease cannot be cured , it can usually be managed by seeing your gastroenterologist who can help with medical management.
Ulcerative colitis is a condition with symptoms that are similar to Crohn’s disease. Like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes abdominal pain, cramping and diarrhea. With ulcerative colitis, you may also experience blood in stools, fever, chills, fatigue and inflammation.
“The key difference between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis is that ulcerative colitis causes ulcers only on the lining of your colon, but Crohn’s disease can cause inflammation anywhere from the mouth to the anus,” notes Dr. Obuch. “Normally, ulcerative colitis can be managed with changes in diet and medication, but in severe cases, surgery may be required.”
If you notice any lasting stomach cramps, frequent trips to the bathroom or blood in your stool, see a doctor immediately.
Gastroenterologist Dr. Joshua Obuch, MD, sees patients at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Obuch, please call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.