Why You Might Have Pain After Eating

Causes of Postprandial Pain

The term postprandial refers to bodily changes that occur after eating. Postprandial pain, or pain after eating, can be a symptom of a wide variety of digestive disorders. In this overview, we will cover some of the reasons that you might be experiencing pain after eating.

Any unusual or persistent pain should be brought to the attention of your physician. Severe pain may need immediate medical attention.

Woman hunched over with stomach pain
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Common Causes

Several digestive conditions can cause postprandial pain.

Dyspepsia

Pain after eating that occurs in the middle part of your upper abdomen (also called "epigastric pain") may be dyspepsia. Dyspepsia is another name for indigestion.

Dyspepsia may also cause a burning sensation in the same area, and feelings of being full early in the meal. Bloating and nausea may also be experienced.

It's a good idea to see a medical provider in order to make sure that dyspepsia isn't just a symptom of another problem. On diagnostic work-up, 20% to 30% of people with dyspepsia receive a diagnosis that gives a cause for their symptoms.

When no cause is found, a person is said to have "functional dyspepsia." Functional dyspepsia is a type of functional gastrointestinal disorder.

Functional dyspepsia is further broken down into:

  • Epigastric pain syndrome (EPS) when epigastric pain or burning is predominant
  • Postprandial distress syndrome (PDS) when there is a feeling of fullness and early satiation

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

People with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) have a chronic sense of burning (heartburn) in the esophagus, pain with swallowing, or tasting acid or undigested food in the throat or mouth.

Although many people have gastroesophageal reflux occasionally, people with GERD have symptoms regularly and the acid present can damage the esophagus, so it's good to talk with your doctor if you experience GERD on an ongoing basis.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can cause pain after eating, starting in the upper abdomen and often radiating (spreading) around to the back. Other possible symptoms are nausea and vomiting.

The most common cause of pancreatitis is gallstones, but there can also be genetic causes. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes are risk factors for pancreatitis, so you may be asked to quit drinking and smoking if you present with pancreatitis.

Signs that you should seek care right away for pancreatitis include:

  • Pain in the abdomen that is severe
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Yellowish color of the skin or the whites of the eyes, called "jaundice"

These can be signs that you have developed an infection or have a potentially dangerous blockage.

Peptic Ulcer

Peptic ulcers, sores that occur on the lining of the stomach or duodenum, can cause pain after eating, particularly if the ulcer is in the stomach (gastric ulcer). Pain from a peptic ulcer is most often experienced somewhere between your sternum and your belly button, and can sometimes occur when your stomach is empty.

Taking multiple NSAID medications (like ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen) or taking NSAID medications for a long time can be risk factors for developing peptic ulcers.

Many ulcers are caused by common stomach bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). It is important to treat H. pylori, because untreated it can lead to certain cancers of the gut.

Gallstones

Pain from gallstones may occur after eating, particularly if the meal was large and/or high in fat. Some people have gallbladder pain (also known as "biliary colic") on an empty stomach, sometimes waking them from sleep.

It is important to have this kind of pain assessed because inflammation of the gallbladder can become serious, possibly needing surgery.

Gallstone pain typically occurs in the middle or the right side of your upper abdomen. The pain may also occur behind your sternum or radiate to your upper back or right shoulder. The pain may be experienced as "gripping" or "gnawing." Other symptoms of gallstones include nausea and vomiting.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome is a health condition in which people experience chronic abdominal pain. By definition, such pain is associated with bowel movements as opposed to eating. However, the act of eating can trigger overly strong intestinal contractions that can result in abdominal pain.

Up to 30% of people who have dyspepsia also have IBS.

Pain from IBS can occur in the upper, middle, and lower parts of the belly, but it may also radiate upward to the upper parts of the torso.

Less Common Causes

The following health conditions may also cause pain after eating:

When to Go to the Doctor

Pain in the body means that something is wrong. If you experience pain after eating only every once in a while and it is not debilitating, you may want to mention it to your doctor the next time that you see them.

But if you are experiencing pain after eating on a fairly frequent basis, it is essential that you make an appointment right away with your doctor to ensure that you get an accurate diagnosis and come up with a treatment plan.

If the pain is severe, debilitating, and accompanied by jaundice, fever, rapid heart rate, chills, or severe vomiting, you should seek emergency care.

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