Abdominal pain is a common health concern in children and adults. In fact, what people often term ‘stomachaches’ can arise from countless different problems, and not all originate from the stomach organ. Pain that arises from the stomach is typically felt as a pain in the centre of the upper abdomen, and more accurately termed ‘gastric pain’.
What causes gastric pain?
The nature of gastric discomfort can be a dull aching to a throbbing sensation. Gastric pain can arise from minor issues like flatulence (gas) and indigestion, or a more severe problem like gallstones or bowel obstruction. Here are some underlying issues that can result in gastric pain:
- Flatulence (Gas)
Gas occurs naturally in the digestive tract due to the digestive processes. Sometimes, gas buildup causes a feeling of bloatedness, pressure, fullness, and mild pain. Usually, the pain comes in waves, and the abdomen may swell. Accompanied by burping or passing of gas, increased flatulence after eating certain foods is normal. Common flatulence-inducing foods include beans, garlic, and cauliflower.
Pain from gas is often fleeting and non-serious. If it is uncomfortable, some over-the-counter medications usually ease the pain and bloatedness quite quickly. However, if it occurs with fever, persistent vomiting or diarrhoea, or unbearable pain, a visit to the doctor is recommended.
- Stomach inflammation
Patient with stomach inflammation usually presented with upper abdominal fullness, dull aching pain after meal, nausea and even vomitting.
In some cases, severe inflammation may lead to gastric ulcer formation and bleeding, which patient may pass out black tarry stool.
- Gall bladder inflammation and Gallstones obstruction
When cholesterol or bilirubin forms solid particles in the gallbladder, these are called gallstones. Having gallstones that are small in size and number may not cause problems. However, large or numerous gallstones can result in symptoms like pain, vomiting, jaundice and fever.
The problems arising from gallstones happen when they form a blockage in the gallbladder. This can cause severe inflammation of the bile duct and gall bladder. In some cases of gallstones, they are passed out naturally by the body. But in other cases, doctor may need to perform endoscopy to remove the stone that block the bile duct and surgical removal of the gallbladder to prevent recurrence.
- Liver or pancreas issues
Sometimes, gastric pain arises from problems in the liver or pancreas. Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) or pancreas (pancreatitis) often results in abdominal pain, hampered organ functions, and other symptoms. Although less often the case, upper abdominal pain may also be due to liver cancer or pancreatic cancer.
Other accompanying symptoms of liver or pancreas problems include yellowish eyes or skin (jaundice), nausea, vomiting, unusually dark urine, and pale or oily stools. Depending on the diagnosis, liver or pancreatic issues can be managed with lifestyle adjustments, medication, or surgical treatment.
- Bowel obstruction
Bowel obstruction occurs when tissue blocks the intestinal pathway, hindering or completely blocking off the passage of digestive waste. It may be caused by an inflamed intestinal wall, fibrous scar tissues, or tumour growth (e.g. colon cancer). On top of intense pain and constipation, bowel obstruction can lead to vomiting of bile, abdominal swelling, and rapid weight loss. The pain is usually worse after eating.
Due to the risk of intestinal wall tearing or becoming infected, bowel obstruction is considered a medical emergency. An immediate visit to the hospital is required to provide medical intervention, pain relief, and if required, emergency surgery to remove the obstruction.
When should you visit a doctor for gastric pain?
While mild and occasional cases of gastric pain usually resolve itself, the more severe and recurrent cases require a visit to the doctor to diagnose the problem and recommend treatments. Here are some examples of gastric pain that should not be ignored:
- Gastric pain accompanied by:
- Persistent changes to bowel movement, e.g. pale, black, or bloody stools
- Persistent diarrhoea or vomiting of more than 12 hours with no improvement
- Rapid weight loss
- Gastric pain in persons with weakened immune systems, e.g. young children, elderly persons, persons with auto-immune diseases like HIV, and persons with cancer
- Gastric pain arising after injury or consumption of medication
- Gastric pain that is extremely intense and debilitating
At the doctor’s, diagnosis methods may include an examination of your diet and lifestyle, imaging methods such as gastroscopy, colonoscopy or CT scans. Only then can the doctor ascertain the cause of your gastric pain and prescribe treatments to address the root problem.