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Acute Abdominal Pain

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 4, 2022.

What do I need to know about acute abdominal pain?

Acute abdominal pain usually starts suddenly and gets worse quickly.

Abdominal Organs

What causes acute abdominal pain?

The following are common causes:

  • A heart attack
  • An allergic reaction to food, or food poisoning
  • Acid reflux
  • Stress
  • Constipation or a blockage in your bowels
  • Monthly period pain in females
  • Inflammation or rupture of your appendix
  • Swelling or an infection in your abdomen or an organ
  • An ulcer or a tear in your esophagus, stomach, or intestines
  • Bleeding in your abdomen or an organ
  • Stones in your kidney or gallbladder
  • In women, diseases of the fallopian tubes or ovaries, or an ectopic pregnancy

How is the cause of acute abdominal pain diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms. Tell the provider when your symptoms started and about any recent travel or surgery. Also tell him or her what makes the pain better or worse. Based on what your provider finds from the exam, and your symptoms, you may need any of the following:

  • Blood tests may be done to check for inflammation or to get information about your overall health.
  • A sample of your bowel movement may be tested to see if you are absorbing nutrients from your diet. It can also be tested for germs that may be causing your pain.
  • X-ray, ultrasound, CT, or MRI pictures may be used to check the organs inside your abdomen. You may be given contrast liquid to help the organs show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • An endoscopy is a test to look inside your esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. During an endoscopy, healthcare providers may find problems in your esophagus, stomach, or small intestine. Some problems may be fixed during the endoscopy. Samples may be taken from your esophagus, stomach, or small intestine, and sent to a lab for tests.
    Upper Endoscopy
  • A colonoscopy is a test that is done to look inside your colon. During a colonoscopy, healthcare providers may find problems in your colon. Some problems may be fixed during the colonoscopy. Samples may be taken from your colon and sent to the lab for tests.

  • An EKG records your heart rhythm and how fast your heart beats. It is used to check for damage to your heart.

How is acute abdominal pain treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of your abdominal pain. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines may be given to decrease pain, treat an infection, and manage your symptoms, such as constipation.
  • Surgery may be needed to treat a serious cause of abdominal pain. Examples include surgery to treat appendicitis or a blockage in your bowels.

What can I do to manage acute abdominal pain?

  • Apply heat on your abdomen for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms.
  • Keep track of your abdominal pain. This may help your healthcare provider learn what is causing your pain. Include when the pain happens, how long it lasts, and what the pain feels like. Track any other symptoms you have with abdominal pain. Also track what you eat, and any symptoms you have after you eat.

What can I do to prevent acute abdominal pain?

  • Make changes to the foods you eat, if needed. Do not eat foods that cause abdominal pain or other symptoms. Eat small meals more often. The following changes may also help:
    • Eat more high-fiber foods if you are constipated. High-fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods, and legumes such as pinto beans.

    • Do not eat foods that cause gas if you have bloating. Examples include broccoli, cabbage, beans, and carbonated drinks.
    • Do not have foods or drinks that contain sorbitol or fructose if you have diarrhea or bloating. Some examples are fruit juices, candy, jelly, and sugar-free gum.
    • Do not eat high-fat foods. Examples include fried foods, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and desserts.
  • Make changes to the liquids you drink, if needed. Do not drink liquids that cause pain or make it worse, such as orange juice. Drink liquids throughout the day to stay hydrated. The following changes may also help:
    • Drink more liquids to prevent dehydration from diarrhea or vomiting. Ask your healthcare provider how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you.
    • Limit or do not have caffeine. Caffeine may make symptoms such as heartburn or nausea worse.
    • Limit or do not drink alcohol. Alcohol can make your abdominal pain worse. Ask your healthcare provider if it is okay for you to drink alcohol. Also ask how much is okay for you to drink. A drink of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, ½ ounce of liquor, or 5 ounces of wine.
  • Manage stress. Stress may cause abdominal pain. Your healthcare provider may recommend relaxation techniques and deep breathing exercises to help decrease your stress. Your provider may recommend you talk to someone about your stress or anxiety, such as a counselor or a friend. Get plenty of sleep. Exercise regularly.
    Black Family Walking for Exercise
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes can damage your esophagus and stomach. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have any of the following signs of a heart attack:
    • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in your chest
    • You may also have any of the following:
      • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm
      • Shortness of breath
      • Nausea or vomiting
      • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You vomit blood or cannot stop vomiting.
  • You have blood in your bowel movement, or it looks like tar.
  • You have bleeding from your rectum.
  • Your abdomen is larger than usual, more painful, and hard.
  • You have severe pain in your abdomen.
  • You stop passing gas and having bowel movements.
  • You feel weak, dizzy, or faint.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have new or worsening signs or symptoms.
  • Your symptoms do not get better with treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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