Causes of Upper Abdominal Pain and When to See a Doctor

Medically Reviewed By Kelsey Trull, PA-C
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Pain in your upper abdomen is usually due to a temporary, minor problem, such as indigestion or gas. However, ongoing or severe upper abdominal pain may indicate a potentially serious condition. Contact a doctor for severe pain or pain that does not go away within 2 days. Structures and organs within the upper abdomen include the:

  • stomach, spleen, liver, and gallbladder
  • parts of the pancreas, small intestine, and large intestine
  • the muscular abdominal wall itself

Problems with any of these structures can cause upper abdominal pain. The pain may be mild or severe and feel like cramps or a burning sensation. Other symptoms can include nausea, fever, and cough.

Abdominal pain can also spread, or radiate, to or from other locations, such as the heart, lungs, or blood vessels. Problems with the kidneys, which are located in the back side of the abdominal cavity, can also result in upper abdominal pain.

This article presents an overview of pain in the upper abdomen, including minor to severe causes, symptoms, when to contact a doctor for treatment, and how doctors diagnose the cause of upper abdominal pain.

What do we know about upper abdominal pain?

male feeling stomach pain at home as he lies on couch
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Abdominal pain, including upper abdominal pain, is a common reason for people to seek care in the emergency department (ED). This is according to a 2016 retrospective analysis of 5,340 admissions for acute abdominal pain to a large urban ED in Italy.

The definition of acute abdominal pain is pain lasting for 5 days. The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine notes that it is the most common condition in the ED. A common diagnosis is nonspecific abdominal pain, or abdominal pain that is not due to a specific cause. Renal colic from kidney stones is the other most common diagnosis.

There are different types of upper abdominal pain. For example, you may feel mild discomfort, a burning sensation, or a sharp pain. You may feel it in one specific area or throughout the upper abdomen. The pain may also move from one place to another. For example, you may feel pain that begins in your chest, such as from heartburn, but that moves to your upper abdomen.

The type and location of the pain can be important in diagnosing the possible cause. For example, pain from your pancreas or kidneys might start in your abdomen and then move to your back. Shingles, which can cause skin irritation, can also cause abdominal pain if the infection spreads there. Pain from heart attacks or pneumonia usually starts in your chest, but you may also feel this in your upper abdomen.

Any symptoms that occur along with upper abdominal pain, such as nausea or vomiting, can also help with diagnosis. Healthcare professionals perform a physical exam and ask about the nature and duration of the pain and any related symptoms. They may also order an abdominal ultrasound to help diagnose upper abdominal pain.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for severe upper abdominal pain that comes on suddenly, especially if it is accompanied by:

Abdominal pain during pregnancy also requires emergency attention.

Less severe pain that does not get better within a couple of days can also indicate a serious medical condition. If your upper abdominal pain is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Find qualified telemedicine providers for a variety of symptoms and conditions here.

What causes upper abdominal pain?

Upper abdominal pain often originates in the digestive tract, but it can also be due to disorders of the circulatory system, kidneys, respiratory system, or abdominal wall.

Acute upper abdominal pain is pain lasting for up to 5 days.

Digestive tract causes of upper abdominal pain

Digestive tract causes include:

Other causes of upper abdominal pain

Conditions involving other body systems that can cause upper abdominal pain include:

Serious or life threatening causes of upper abdominal pain

Upper abdominal pain may be a symptom of a serious or potentially life threatening condition, as these 2021 and 2016 articles summarize. Some conditions of this nature include:

Upper abdominal pain may occur along with other symptoms, including those involving the digestive tract or other body systems, such as the circulatory (cardiovascular) system.

Digestive tract symptoms that may occur along with upper abdominal pain

Gastrointestinal symptoms can include:

Read about home remedies for nausea here.

Other symptoms that may occur along with upper abdominal pain

Upper abdominal pain may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. Such symptoms may include:

What are the potential complications of upper abdominal pain?

Potential complications of untreated upper abdominal pain due to serious conditions include:

  • spread of infection
  • bowel infarction due to prolonged ischemia
  • spread of cancer
  • sepsis
  • organ failure

When to contact a doctor

Abdominal pain is a common complaint that can be due to a wide range of causes. Some of these are serious and require a professional medical evaluation to diagnose or rule out.

Contact a doctor or another healthcare practitioner for upper abdominal pain when you experience:

  • abdominal pain bad enough to wake you up
  • continuous discomfort for 24–48 hours
  • mild pain or pain that comes and goes for more than a few days
  • vomiting
  • rash

Keep in mind that the need for medical attention can depend on the person’s age, health, and medical history.

Learn more about when to contact a doctor for abdominal pain here.

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

In some cases, upper abdominal pain is a symptom of a serious condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any of the following symptoms:

How do doctors diagnose the cause of upper abdominal pain?

The diagnosis of upper abdominal pain involves a thorough physical examination, a review of your medical history, and possibly imaging and blood tests.

Imaging tests can include:

Learn when doctors might order an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy here.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of upper abdominal pain

To diagnose your condition, some questions your doctor may ask include:

  • Where do you feel the pain?
  • Is the pain precise, or is it hard to pinpoint where it is?
  • When did the pain start?
  • Have you had pain like this before?
  • How severe is the pain? (On a scale of 1–10, 10 is the worst pain you can imagine.)
  • How would you describe your pain? Is it sharp or dull, constant, or intermittent?
  • Does anything make the pain go away or make it worse?
  • Have you been injured?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • What is your medical history?
  • Have you had surgery recently?
  • Could you be pregnant?

What are the treatments for causes of abdominal pain?

The treatment of abdominal pain will depend on the cause. You can treat some causes at home. For non-serious causes, such as stomach flu, treatment includes resting and taking on fluids until your body clears the viral infection.

Some types of treatment, along with their causes, include:

Summary

Often, upper abdominal pain is not due to a serious cause and will go away on its own.

However, if you have persistent pain, unusual or sharp pain, or pain with other symptoms, take your concerns to your healthcare professional. In most cases, a doctor finds the cause, and treatment is successful.

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Medical Reviewer: Kelsey Trull, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 31
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.