What are stomach cramps?
“Stomach cramps” is a general term for sharp, recurrent contractions or feelings of pain or discomfort in the belly. These sensations can occur anywhere between the lower chest and the pelvis or groin. They can involve anything in the abdomen, including the stomach, intestines, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, esophagus, and blood vessels. Stomach cramps occur in any age group or population. Most people will experience them at some point during their lifetime.
Stomach cramps are a common symptom of numerous different diseases, disorders and conditions. These causes range from mild to serious. They often affect the abdominal organs and sometimes the pelvic organs, such as the uterus and the bladder. Common causes of stomach cramps include indigestion, gastroenteritis, menstrual cramps, bladder infection, and excessive gas.
Stomach cramps may affect a small area of the belly, such as the lower abdomen near the groin or up near the stomach. Stomach cramps may also occur throughout the abdomen.
Depending on the cause, stomach cramps can last for a few minutes or hours. For example, stomach cramps after eating rich food or from vigorous exercise generally do not last a long time. But stomach cramps can also last for a few days, such as when they are due to a menstrual period. Long-term stomach cramping may be continuous or occur periodically and may be due to more serious conditions, such as colorectal cancer.
In some cases, stomach cramps may result from serious conditions, such as food poisoning or colorectal cancer. Seek prompt medical care if your stomach cramps are unexplained, persistent, or cause you concern.
Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for stomach cramps during pregnancy, or stomach cramps that occur with vomiting blood, bloody stools, dizziness, abdominal distention, fainting, severe shortness of breath, or yellowing of the skin. These can be symptoms of a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that requires emergency care.
What other symptoms might occur with stomach cramps?
Stomach cramps may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. If you have other symptoms along with stomach cramps, be sure to inform your healthcare provider. This information will help your doctor diagnose the reason for your stomach cramps.
Digestive symptoms that may occur with stomach cramps
Stomach cramps may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:
Change in bowel habits
Stomach noises including rumbling and gurgling
Other symptoms that may occur with stomach cramps
Stomach cramps may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
Fever and chills
Heavy menstrual period or unusual vaginal bleeding
Missed menstrual period (indicating that you might be pregnant and experiencing implantation cramping)
Unusual vaginal discharge
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, stomach cramps may accompany symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for symptoms such as:
Bloody or black stools, or major rectal bleeding
Difficulty breathing or severe shortness of breath
High fever (higher than 101°F)
Pulsating mass in abdomen
Rapid pulse or rapid breathing
Severe abdominal pain or swelling
Vaginal bleeding unrelated to normal menstruation
Vomiting blood or black material (resembling coffee grounds)
Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
What causes stomach cramps?
Stomach cramps causes include infection, cancer, inflammation, trauma, obstruction, and other abnormal processes. Relatively mild conditions such as indigestion and stress can cause stomach cramps. At the other end of the spectrum, life-threatening conditions such as trauma, appendicitis, and colorectal cancer can also cause stomach cramps.
Gastrointestinal causes of stomach cramps
Stomach cramps may arise from mild to serious problems in the digestive tract including:
Appendicitis (inflammation of the appendix, generally due to infection)
Bowel blockage or obstruction
Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
Constipation or fecal impaction
Food intolerance or food allergy
Food poisoning, such as Salmonella food poisoning
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS; digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease)
Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Gynecological causes of stomach cramps
Stomach cramps may occur for gynecological reasons including:
Complications of pregnancy, such as miscarriage
Pelvic inflammatory disease (infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes)
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
Other causes of stomach cramps
Stomach cramps can also be caused by problems in body systems other than the digestive tract and gynecological organs including:
Abdominal aortic aneurysm
Acute congestive heart failure
Exercise-induced muscle sprains
Medication side effect (such as from chemotherapeutic drugs, antibiotics, and sodium phosphate)
Peritonitis (infection of the lining of the abdomen)
Stress, anxiety or fear
Toxic exposures (ingestion of toxic chemicals or poisonous plants, or poisonous insect bites)
When should you see a doctor for stomach cramps?
Stomach cramps from everyday causes, like gas, will resolve on their own. However, there are times when you should see a doctor about stomach cramps. It is the safest option to find potentially serious causes and get the correct treatment.
Make an appointment to see your doctor if mild stomach cramping lasts for a few days or is causing concern. See a doctor promptly when:
You also have abdominal pain or bloating that does not improve after a couple of days.
You are experiencing irregular or prolonged menstrual bleeding.
You have frequent urination or pain or burning with urination.
You have jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and eyes.
Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for stomach cramps when:
You are pregnant or could be pregnant.
You are unable to pass stool.
You are vomiting blood or a coffee ground-like material or have bloody stools.
You had a recent injury or trauma involving the abdomen.
Your abdomen is tender to touch, hard or swollen, or you have severe abdominal pain.
How do doctors diagnose the cause of stomach cramps?
To diagnose the cause of stomach cramps, your doctor will take a medical history, perform an exam, and possibly order testing. Questions your doctor may ask about your stomach cramps and other symptoms include:
Where is the cramping? Is it in one spot or all over?
How severe is the cramping?
When did the cramping start?
When does the cramping occur? Is it continuous or does it only occur at certain times?
Have you had this type of cramping before?
Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as pain, diarrhea or nausea?
What, if anything, seems to make the cramping better or worse?
What medications do you take?
When was your last menstrual period?
During the physical exam, your doctor will feel your abdomen, checking for areas of tenderness or enlarged organs. Your doctor may also perform a pelvic exam. Depending on the likely causes, a digital rectal exam (DRE) may be necessary. Using the results of the exam, your doctor may order testing including:
Blood, urine and stool tests
Imaging exams of the abdomen, including X-rays, ultrasounds, CT (computed tomography) scans, and MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging)
It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.
How do you treat stomach cramps?
Treating stomach cramps depends on the underlying cause of the problem. If your doctor diagnoses a condition such as IBS or IBD, he or she may prescribe medications. Stomach cramping related to a viral infection will resolve as the infection clears. For causes like appendicitis, surgery may be necessary. Otherwise, everyday stomach cramps due to diarrhea, gas, constipation, or other stomach upset may respond to over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.
OTC options include:
Alpha-galactosidase (Beano, BeanAssist, Gas-Zyme, others), an enzyme that breaks down gas-producing sugars and carbohydrates in beans, grains and vegetables. You take it right before eating.
Antacids (Mylanta, Tums, others), which reduce stomach acid and treat indigestion
Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), which can reduce noxious odors from the breakdown of hydrogen sulfide
Lactase (Dairy Ease, Lactaid, others), an enzyme that breaks down lactose. It helps when people are lactose intolerant. You use it just before having dairy products. Lactose-free dairy products are also available.
Simethicone (Gas-X, Mylanta Gas, others), which reduces the surface tension of gas bubbles to help them break easier, allowing gas to pass through the digestive tract more easily
Stool softeners and laxatives, which can ease constipation
Home remedies for stomach cramps
Dietary and eating habit changes can help provide stomach cramps relief. To ease and prevent mild stomach cramps and promote digestive health, try the following:
Drinking plenty of water throughout the day and with meals
Eating smaller meals throughout the day
Increasing fiber in your diet by eating foods, such as beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains
Limiting gas-producing foods, dairy, and fatty or fried foods
Reducing the amount of air you swallow by avoiding straws, chewing thoroughly, eating slowly, and quitting smoking
Alternative treatments for stomach cramps
Probiotics are one of the main alternative treatments for overall digestive health. These healthy bacteria are present in yogurt and fermented foods, such as kimchi. Supplements are also available. Using probiotics to replace and replenish the bacterial flora in your digestive tract may help reduce gas, bloating and cramping.
What are the potential complications of stomach cramps?
Complications associated with stomach cramps can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because stomach cramps can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage.
It is important to visit your healthcare provider when you have persistent stomach cramps or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can help reduce any potential complications including:
Dehydration due to a decreased desire to drink fluids or fluid loss due to diarrhea and fever
Miscarriage of a pregnancy
Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies due to a decreased desire to eat
Spread of cancer
- Spread of infection to other parts of the body, including the blood