Abdominal Pain: When Should I See a Healthcare Provider?

Signs That Stomach Pain Is Mild, Serious, or a Possible Emergency

Abdominal pains are a common complaint with many causes. Irritable bowel syndrome and functional disorders are common causes of abdominal pain, especially in the types of stomach pain that affect women.

However, abdominal pain can have several other causes.

Some abdominal pains causes are short-lived and highly treatable, like gas pains. Other causes are more severe, including conditions like pelvic inflammatory disease. Problems with your liver and other organs can cause abdominal pain, as do some types of cancer.

An illustration with anatomy of the organs in the abdomen and different problems (What Causes Stomach Pain?)

Illustration by Paige McLaughlin for Verywell Health

This article will help you to understand these causes of pain, as well as abdominal pain treatment. It offers information on when to worry about abdominal pains that are a medical emergency, and when you can try some home treatments instead.

Causes of Abdominal Pain

There are many organs in the abdominal cavity, including the stomach, duodenum, small intestine and large intestine, pancreas, gall bladder, liver, kidneys, spleen, and reproductive organs. There also are muscles, blood vessels, bones, and other structures.

Problems with any of these organs or structures can cause pain and other symptoms. Some of these causes may be relatively minor concerns, such as food allergies or meals that cause indigestion or gas.

Yet they may still require a healthcare provider's assessment, because they may be symptoms of a more serious condition.

You should see a healthcare provider for abdominal pain causes that include:

Types of Abdominal Pain

Here are a few generalizations healthcare providers often use in evaluating abdominal pain. Be aware, however, that these generalizations are not true in every case, and practitioners treat them as clues and not as rules.

Generalized Pain

Pain that is widespread (involving more than half of your abdomen) tends to have a relatively benign cause such as indigestion or a stomach virus.

Localized Pain

Pain that is localized to a particular area is more likely to be from a particular organ, such as the appendix or gallbladder. 

Cramping Pain

Cramping pain is usually benign unless it is severe, lasts for more than 24 hours, or occurs with a fever.

Colicky Pain

Colicky pain (pain that occurs in waves) is likely to be caused by obstruction or partial obstruction, such as with kidney stones or gallstones. 

Treatments at Home

In some cases, you may want to try caring for yourself at home before contacting a healthcare provider. This may be appropriate if your pain is not severe, and you have no other serious symptoms with the pain in your abdomen.

Self-help strategies for abdominal pain may include:

  • Temporary diet changes, to clear liquids or bland foods (the BRAT diet may help)
  • Over-the-counter medication, such as antacids 
  • Laxatives to relieve constipation if you're unable to move your bowels
  • Applying a heating pad to the abdomen to relieve the pain

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Consider calling a healthcare provider if you have any of these signs or symptoms:

  • Pain that persists for more than a day or two, becomes more severe over the first day, or is colicky
  • Fever with your abdominal pain
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea that persists for more than a day or two
  • Prolonged poor appetite or weight loss
  • Persistent vaginal bleeding
  • Burning with urination, or frequent urination
  • Pain that, while mild and self-limiting, recurs frequently
  • Pain that is associated with blood in the stool or black stool

Some signs that occur with abdominal pain indicate a possible emergency. Call 911 or seek emergency care for any of the following:

  • You are vomiting blood
  • You have bloody or tarry stools
  • You are unable to pass stools, especially with vomiting
  • The pain extends above the abdomen (to the chest, neck or shoulder areas)
  • The pain is severe, sudden and sharp
  • The pain is accompanied by dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • You have cancer, are pregnant, or have had recent trauma
  • You have extreme tenderness in the region of the pain
  • Significant abdominal distention

Tests that are often used to diagnose abdominal pain include:

  • A thorough past medical history and review of your ongoing symptoms
  • Complete physical examination, including palpation (touching and pressing) the abdomen, and listening to your bowel sounds with a stethoscope
  • Rectal and/or pelvic exams
  • Blood tests, to check for liver function and other conditions
  • Urine and fecal (stool) tests
  • X-rays, or computed tomography (CT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests
  • Procedures including colonoscopy and upper endoscopy

A Word From Verywell

While abdominal pain is common and is usually benign, it is important not to just brush it off. Call a healthcare provider for symptoms that suggest a true emergency. If you self-treat, reassess your symptoms every few hours to decide whether it’s time to see a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes lower abdominal pain in females?

    Causes of abdominal pain specific to biological females ranges from the more common, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) infection, to ovarian and cervical cancers. Endometriosis, fibroids, or even an ectopic pregnancy can cause pain. So can disorders affecting the pancreas, gallbladder, and other organs.

  • How do the four quadrants of the abdomen help to explain pain?

    Healthcare providers describe your abdomen in four quadrants: the right upper (RUQ), the right lower (RLQ), the left upper (LUQ), and the left lower (LLQ). It helps them to arrive at a diagnosis based on organ location. Or, as with inflammatory bowel disease, it helps them to identify pain that moves, or radiates, from a spot.

  • Should I be worried about stomach pain?

    Stomach pain, in a localized spot that doesn't go away, is cause for concern. It's more likely to come from a specific organ, like your pancreas. Pain that comes in waves also is cause for concern. Contact your healthcare provider right away if you have other symptoms, like a fever, shortness of breath, or vomiting blood with severe pain.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Richard N. Fogoros, MD
Richard N. Fogoros, MD, is a retired professor of medicine and board-certified in internal medicine, clinical cardiology, and clinical electrophysiology.