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Abdominal pains: When to see a doctor

BY Susan Jara

14th Nov 2022 Wellbeing

Abdominal pains: When to see a doctor

It's normal to get stomach aches on occasion, and not normally cause for alarm. But here are some examples of when you should see a doctor about your abdominal pains

What many of us refer to as a stomach ache can indicate different things that are happening in the abdomen, not all of which affect the stomach. Often the discomfort we’re feeling is due to indigestion, gas or an intestinal virus. 

But certain symptoms may signal something more serious that you should have checked by a doctor, especially if it involves severe pain or persists beyond a few days. Here are four examples. 

Dull burning pain, often in the upper part of the abdomen

This is the hallmark sign of a peptic ulcer, and usually comes with bloating, burping, poor appetite and weight loss. The pain can often be relieved by taking antacids or eating certain foods, such as those high in fibre (like oatmeal). 

Peptic ulcers are sores on the lining of the stomach or at the top of the small intestine. And despite what many think, they’re not caused by stress. Instead, you can blame one of two major culprits: Helicobacter pylori (or H. pylori), a bacterium that damages the mucous coating of the stomach; or the overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. 

"The pain can often be relieved by taking antacids or eating certain foods"

If you also experience symptoms including nausea, vomiting, blood in your stool, chest pain or back pain, you should see a doctor right away.

Sharp pain in the lower right side 

This kind of pain could be caused by appendicitis, especially if you also have a low-grade fever, vomiting and constipation or diarrhea, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you do have appendicitis, the pain will likely increase whenever you move around or take deep breaths, cough, or sneeze. 

Appendicitis

If you think you have appendicitis you should see your doctor

Appendicitis happens when the appendix becomes inflamed and filled with pus, often from an infection. Treatment usually requires surgery to remove the appendix before it ruptures and spreads infection throughout the abdominal cavity.

Discomfort around the belly button

If this type of pain is coupled with dull pain near the shoulder, and seems to act up after eating fatty meals, gallstones may be to blame. And if you’re over the age of 40 and you’ve been pregnant, you’re at greater risk than the rest of the population. This is because spikes in estrogen, common during pregnancy, may cause these tiny stones to form in the gallbladder.

"If you’re over the age of 40 and you’ve been pregnant, you’re at greater risk than the rest of the population"

According to Dr. Lawrence J Brandt, a gastroenterologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, gallstones can go undetected for years. They are generally painless unless they get stuck in the cystic duct—a tube that connects the gallbladder with another tube that carries bile from the liver—in which case you should discuss surgical and medication options with your doctor.

Sudden pain in the lower left area 

If abdominal pain strikes suddenly, along with gas, it may signal diverticulitis. This is an inflammation of small pouches called diverticula that can form in the large intestine. Diverticulitis is a fairly common gastro­intestinal disorder among older adults, and risk factors include being overweight, smoking, the overuse of NSAIDs and having a diet that is high in animal fat but low in fibre.

Man with diverticulitis resting

Rest, diet changes and antibiotics can treat mild diverticulitis

Most people don’t have any symptoms, but when they do occur, they usually include fever, nausea, cramping and a change in bowel habits.

According to the Mayo Clinic, mild diverticulitis can be treated with rest, changes to your diet and antibiotics. Severe or recurring cases may need surgery.

For drug free relief from abdominal pain and IBS symptoms, some gels found online can be an option.

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