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Acute Care Advisor 2017.3 Copyright © 2017 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.

What is abdominal pain?

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Abdominal pain is aching or cramping in your belly. The abdomen, or belly, is the area between the chest and the pelvis. The pain can range from mild discomfort to cramping or severe pain.

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Many things can cause abdominal pain and it can sometimes be hard to know the exact cause of the pain. Some common causes of pain in the abdomen are:

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  • Indigestion or heartburn

  • Infections, such as food poisoning or stomach flu

  • Food allergy

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Gastritis (an irritation of the stomach lining) or ulcers

  • Constipation

  • Menstruation

  • Hernia

  • Urinary tract infection

  • Diseases of the intestine

  • Appendicitis

  • Pancreatitis or liver problems

  • Disease or infection in the uterus

  • Aortic dissection (tearing of the part of the aorta that is in your belly)

  • Tumor or growth

  • Fluid collecting in the abdomen

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Sometimes abdominal pain is caused by a problem in another part of the body, such as the lungs or the heart. For example, a heart attack can cause upper abdominal pain.

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You cannot always tell how serious the cause is from how bad the pain is. Mild conditions such as gas or stomach flu may cause severe pain, while more serious problems, such as cancer, may cause relatively mild pain.

How can I take care of myself when I go home?

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How long it takes to get better depends on the cause of your abdominal pain, the treatment you need, how well you recover, your overall health, and any complications you may have.

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Management

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  • Your provider will give you a list of your medicines when you leave the hospital.

    • Know your medicines. Know what they look like, how much you should take each time, how often you should take them, and why you take each one.

    • Take your medicines exactly as your provider tells you to.

    • Carry a list of your medicines in your wallet or purse. Include any nonprescription medicines and supplements on the list.

    • Talk to your provider before you use any other medicines, including nonprescription medicines.

  • Your provider may prescribe medicine to:

    • Relieve gas and bloating

    • Treat pain

    • Treat or prevent an infection

    • Treat or prevent nausea or constipation

    • Reduce the acid in your stomach

  • Your provider may recommend other types of therapy to help relieve pain, other symptoms, or side effects of treatment.

  • If you have had abdominal surgery, to care for your surgical wound:

    • Keep your surgical wound clean.

    • If you are told to change your dressing on your surgical wound, wash your hands before changing the dressing and after disposing of the dressing.

  • Follow activity restrictions, such as not driving or operating machinery, as recommended by your healthcare provider or pharmacist, especially if you are taking pain medicines or muscle relaxants.

  • If you have belly pain, it may help to take a bath or put a hot water bottle or heating pad on your stomach. Cover the hot water bottle with a towel or set the heating pad on low so you don’t burn your skin.

  • Ask your healthcare provider if there are any foods or medicines you should avoid.

  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Stay physically active as advised by your provider.

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Appointments

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  • Follow your provider's instructions for follow-up appointments.

  • Keep appointments for any testing you may need.

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Talk with your provider about any questions or concerns you have.

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Call emergency medical services or 911 if you have new or worsening:

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  • Chest pain or pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back (may feel like indigestion or heartburn)

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders, or in your back, neck, jaw, or stomach

  • Trouble breathing

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat for no known reason

  • Along with the previous symptoms, feeling very tired, faint, or sick to your stomach

  • Feeling like your heart is beating too fast, too slow, or skipping beats

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Call your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening:

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  • Pain, redness, or swelling in your legs or arms

  • Pain or cramping in your belly that goes away and then comes back worse than it was

  • Pain or cramping in your belly that:

    • Usually happens 12 to 24 hours after a large meal or heavy drinking

    • Is steady and sharp

    • Gets worse when you move

    • Feels better when you sit or lean forward

    • Makes you vomit

  • Change in bowel habits, such as pain, mucus, diarrhea, constipation, or other intestinal problems

  • Pain or burning with urination

  • Urgent need to urinate often

  • Signs of infection around your surgical wound if you had surgery that may include:

    • The area around your wound is more red or painful

    • The wound area is very warm to touch

    • You have blood, pus, or other fluid coming from your surgical wound area

    • You have a fever higher than 101.5° F (38.6° C)

    • You have chills or muscle aches

References

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Marx J, Hockberger R, and Walls R. 2014. Abdominal Pain in Rosen's emergency medicine [8th ed.], 27, 22-231.e1. Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders.
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Schiller L. Abdominal pain syndrome. http://www.acg.gi.org/patients/gihealth/aps.asp. 2013. Accessed October 29, 2014.

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Developed by RelayHealth.

Published by RelayHealth.

Produced in Cork, Ireland.

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

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