When to See a Doctor for Abdominal Pain

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Woman with pelvic pain

Everyone has experienced abdominal pain and stomach cramps at some point in their life. This pain can range from chronic, constant pain to sudden sharp pain in your stomach that makes it hard for you to move.

The abdomen is a large space, so the pain may be located in different places. For example, you could have lower abdominal pain, upper abdominal pain, or generalized abdominal pain. The pain could also be localized in the middle, the right side, or the left. But at what point do you need to be concerned that it may be something more serious?

Common Causes of Abdominal Pain

The human abdomen has many organs ranging from the stomach to reproductive organs. There are also soft tissues, including muscles and tendons. Anything in your abdomen could cause abdominal pain if it becomes inflamed, irritated, infected or injured somehow. The most common causes include:

Abdominal Pain Treatment at Home

If your abdominal pain is not severe, you may be able to manage the pain at home with a heating pad or over-the-counter medications, such as antacids or pain relievers. However, if you believe your pain is caused by stomach irritation, do not take ibuprofen or aspirin, as these can irritate your stomach further.

If the pain does not go away within a day or two or you seem to be getting worse instead of better, it is best to see your doctor for evaluation. Here are some tips for caring for yourself at home:

  • Pain related to gas and intestinal issues: If your abdominal pain seems to be related to something you eat or drink, try eliminating this from your diet for several weeks to see if the pain returns.

  • Food poisoning: Eating food contaminated with bacteria that causes food poisoning (gastroenteritis) can cause serious abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. In most cases, this will pass within 24 to 48 hours. It is essential to drink as much fluid as possible to keep from becoming dehydrated during this period. However, if you start passing blood in your stool, you become dehydrated, or you get worse instead of better, see your doctor as quickly as possible.

  • Gas: Gas in your stomach and intestines can be very painful. Over-the-counter medications that help your body digest food can help reduce the amount of trapped gas. Physical exercise and hot baths can also help move the gas.

When to See a Doctor for Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain can be a sign of serious illness. It can be caused by appendicitis, abdominal aortic aneurysm, ectopic pregnancy, or even a perforated (burst) colon, for example. These are emergency situations that require immediate medical care. Go to your local emergency department as soon as possible if you:

  • Are vomiting blood

  • Have blood in your stool or urine

  • Can’t touch your abdomen because it’s too tender

  • Are pregnant

  • Had a trauma or injury to the abdomen within the previous few days

  • Are unable to stand up straight because of severe pain

 Call 911 if you are having difficulty breathing or if you also have chest pain.

 You should also see your doctor as soon as possible if the pain has lasted more than a few days, you haven’t had a bowel movement for more than a few days, or you have pain when you urinate.

Who to See for Abdominal Pain

In general, the first doctor you would see for abdominal pain is your family doctor, primary care physician, or an emergency room doctor. If they determine the cause of your pain needs to be treated by a specialist, you may be referred to a:

  • Gastroenterologist, who specializes in conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines.

  • Surgeon, who may operate to treat conditions such as appendicitis, a blocked or perforated intestine, an abdominal aortic aneurysm, or an ectopic pregnancy.

  • Gynecologist, who treats conditions related to the female reproductive system.

  • Urologist, who treats conditions related to the urinary tract, from the kidneys to the urethra.

  • Hepatologist, who treats liver disease.

You may need a referral from your primary doctor to ensure your insurance company covers the cost.
If you have chronic abdominal pain, perhaps caused by bowel disease for example, you will likely work with a specialist to manage your chronic condition.

Abdominal pain can be frightening because it can be caused by so many conditions. While abdominal pain frequently goes away on its own, chronic abdominal pain can be a sign of a serious health issue. If you have abdominal pain and you are concerned about what may be causing it, see a doctor to rule out potential problems. The sooner you and your doctor understand the cause of your abdominal pain, the sooner you can treat your condition and get back to feeling well.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 11
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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.