by Rose Hayes

You’re going about your day, eating meals and maybe a snack or two when—out of nowhere—pain hits you in the gut. If you’ve never experienced this agony before, alarming questions are likely racing through your mind. Should you wait it out? Call your doctor? Drive to the emergency room?

Armed with the information provided below, you’ll know what to do if unexpected abdominal pain disrupts your day. Todd Williams, M.D. practices at Grand Teton Gastroenterology and Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. He specializes in helping people manage gastrointestinal diseases. In this article, he discusses five common reasons for abdominal pain and explains treatment options for each one.


Food poisoning

What happens when you swallow food or water that has been contaminated by a bacteria, virus, parasite or toxins made by germs? A painful and often “explosive” case of food poisoning!  

Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible for a large group of people to share a meal, but only some of them get sick. “The severity of food poisoning can vary greatly depending on the cause, as well as the overall health of the person who becomes ill,” explains Dr. Williams.

“However, even mild cases can be dangerous in patients with serious underlying medical conditions or in the elderly,” he continues. “These people should contact their doctor or go to the emergency department if they have food poisoning symptoms ” including the following:  

  • Abdominal cramps or stomach pain
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Fever

Most people will recover from food poisoning within 12 hours to a few days. However, if you’re unable to keep liquids down, you may need to receive intravenous (IV) fluids at a doctor’s office or hospital.

“The most important goal is to avoid dehydration,” warns Williams. “If you’re already having symptoms and need to rehydrate, drink water or electrolyte-rich drinks like Pedialyte as much as tolerated. Dairy products can worsen symptoms and should be avoided during the early stages of food poisoning as well.”


Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Another cause of stomach pain is called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  This chronic condition is often very uncomfortable but it won’t damage your intestines.  

“With IBS, you might experience constipation or diarrhea, and sometimes people alternate between the two,” notes Williams. “Other common symptoms include gas, cramping and bloating.”

To manage this condition, some people may require medications like anti-spasmodics, which reduce cramping, or anti-diarrheal drugs. But often, lifestyle changes can keep symptoms under control, like these:  

“I also generally recommend avoiding dairy for two weeks to see if it’s a trigger,” says Williams. “High-fat and fried foods can trigger symptoms too. I usually suggest a high fiber diet and a fiber supplement if needed to avoid constipation.” 


Crohn’s Disease

That agony in your gut could be related to the severe, chronic inflammation that characterizes Crohn’s Disease, which can affect any area of the digestive system.

“Other common symptoms include chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood or mucous in the stool, weight loss, fatigue and anemia,” explains Williams.

Anemia refers to a low red blood cell count that may come from blood loss and can be a medical emergency. If you notice blood in your bowel movements or you suspect you have Crohn’s disease, make an appointment with your doctor. If you’re actively bleeding from your rectum or you experience dizziness, palpitations and weakness, go to the emergency room or call 9-1-1. You may need a blood transfusion and a procedure to stop the bleeding.

There’s no cure for Crohn’s disease, but it is possible to minimize times when it’s active and even achieve remission. Treatments are available to relieve your symptoms and prevent complications. When the disease is well managed, some people may even enjoy periods of time that are symptom-free.


Celiac disease

That acute pain in your stomach could mean that you’re having an overactive immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and several other grains.  Called celiac disease, this condition causes the body’s immune system to attack the small intestine when gluten is ingested.

People can develop this chronic condition at any age. Symptoms vary from person-to-person, and can include the following:

  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Bloating and gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Adults may experience depression and bone or joint pain.

It’s also possible to have gluten sensitivity. “These individuals can have some of the same symptoms seen in Celiac disease,” adds Williams. Whether you have full-blown celiac or sensitivity to gluten, the primary treatment is a gluten-free diet.

That can get tricky because there are some surprising sources of gluten. That includes some soy sauces and candies like licorice.  It’s even found in the glue on some envelopes and postage stamps as well as in some toothpastes and mouthwashes.  People with celiac or gluten intolerance should also avoid using cosmetics that contain gluten around their mouths and on their lips.

Peptic ulcers

That dull or burning pain in your upper abdominal area, especially when you’re hungry, could be caused by a peptic ulcer. This condition involves a wound that forms on the stomach’s lining or at the beginning of the small intestine. Common symptoms include:

  • Gnawing pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Frequent burping
  • Weight loss

It’s a popular myth that day-to-day stress can cause stomach ulcers. In reality, there are two common causes: “Ulcers can result from prolonged use of NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen,” Williams explains. “They can also be caused by an infection with the bacteria, Helicobacter pylori.”

Tell your doctor if you suspect you have an ulcer. If left untreated, it could cause serious internal bleeding. Your doctor may recommend that you stop all NSAID medications and start taking a drug to protect your stomach lining, called a proton-pump inhibitor. If you have an H. pylori infection, you’ll need a combination of two-to-three antibiotics as well. 

Still not sure what could be causing your symptoms? It might be time to see a specialist. If you need to find a gastroenterologist, click here.