Why You Might Have Pain After Eating

Causes of Postprandial Pain

Postprandial pain is stomach or upper abdominal pain that occurs after eating. Experiencing this from time to time usually isn't a concern, but frequent pain after eating can be a symptom of several digestive disorders.

It's a good idea to talk with a healthcare provider if your stomach often hurts after you eat. Severe pain may require immediate medical care.

This overview covers some of the reasons you might have pain after eating. It also explains when you should see a healthcare professional.

Woman hunched over with stomach pain
Bundit Binsuk / EyeEm / Getty Images

Common Causes

Abdominal pain after eating can be traced to many causes, from overeating to pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, which sits behind the stomach.

The following are some common reasons for this kind of pain. Still, pinpointing an exact cause sometimes can be tricky, especially if more than one factor is at play.

Eating Too Much or Too Fast

The "average" stomach can hold only about 1 or 2 cups of food. Trouble often starts when people try to exceed this capacity. The stomach must stretch to make room for extra food, which can cause discomfort or pain.

Eating too quickly—which often causes overeating—can cause you to swallow extra air, causing bloat and gas.

These are, in fact, two of the primary triggers for abdominal pain after a meal.

To prevent eating more than you need, try limiting distractions at mealtime and serving yourself from the kitchen (instead of the table, where it's easy to grab seconds). Taking intermittent sips of water can also help fill you up so that you don't overeat.

To slow yourself down while you eat, nutritionists often recommend taking a bite, immediately setting your fork down, and chewing completely before picking up the fork again.

Indigestion

Pain or burning in the middle of your upper abdomen is called epigastric pain or dyspepsia—what's perhaps better known as indigestion. It affects about 25% of Americans each year.

Dyspepsia may cause:

  • A feeling of being full early in a meal
  • Bloating
  • Nausea

You're more likely to experience these symptoms if you:

  • Drink too much coffee or alcohol
  • Eat too fast or too much
  • Favor fatty, spicy, or greasy foods, or those that contain a lot of acid (like oranges and tomatoes)
  • Are stressed
  • Smoke

Though not everyone with has indigestion has an underlying condition to blame for it, about 20% to 30% do and don't know it. This is why it's crucial to see a healthcare provider.

If your indigestion is chronic and a specific cause cannot be found, you may have what's called functional dyspepsia. This means there's no clear structural problem or disease, but the digestive tract isn't functioning normally, causing ongoing symptoms.

Functional gastric disorders that can cause issues after eating include:

  • Epigastric pain syndrome (EPS): Epigastric pain or burning is the main symptom.
  • Postprandial distress syndrome (PDS): You feel full early in a meal.

Curb Indigestion Triggers

Some habits are more likely to trigger indigestion than others. You may feel bloated or nauseated after drinking too much coffee or alcohol, eating too fast or too much, or eating fatty, spicy, or greasy foods or those that contain a lot of acid.

Food Intolerances and Allergies

Many people confuse food allergies and food intolerances. This is largely because some of the symptoms—stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting—can be similar.

Food intolerances are caused by the body's inability to digest a certain ingredient in food. For example, a lack of the enzyme lactase causes lactose intolerance, or issues with dairy. In this case, consuming smaller portions or a lactose-free product can help prevent abdominal pain.

People with food allergies must avoid certain foods or ingredients entirely because they can set off an abnormal immune response that, in some cases, can be life-threatening. Allergies to eggs, milk, peanuts, shellfish, and wheat are most common.

You may have your suspicions about an intolerance or allergy—and you may be right—but make an appointment with your healthcare provider so they can confirm your hunch.

Not only can a formal diagnosis help you better navigate mealtime so you feel your best, but in the case of allergy, it can get you access to epinephrine—emergency treatment you can use in the case of a severe reaction.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a health condition in which acid flows from your stomach back up to the esophagus, the tube that leads to your mouth.

GERD causes:

  • Burning in the esophagus (heartburn)
  • Pain when you swallow
  • Tasting acid or undigested food in the throat or mouth

Many people have reflux symptoms from time to time. People with GERD have symptoms regularly.

Acid can damage the esophagus, so it's good to talk with your healthcare provider if you experience reflux often.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a health condition in which people have persistent abdominal pain. In fact, three of the more common types of IBS involve abdominal discomfort, along with another symptom:

  • Mostly diarrhea and abdominal discomfort
  • Mostly constipation and abdominal discomfort
  • Alternating loose stools and constipation with abdominal discomfort

Depending on the person, the discomfort can be more accurately described as bloating, burning, cramping, distention, fullness, or sharp pain. Food, stress, constipation, and diarrhea are all possible triggers.

Pain from IBS can occur in the upper, middle, and lower parts of the belly. It can also spread to the upper parts of the torso. Up to 30% of people who have dyspepsia also have IBS.

Gallstones

Gallstones are small, hard, crystal-like deposits that can form in the gallbladder or bile ducts (tubular structures within in the liver. They can occur when there is too much cholesterol in your bile, abnormal gallbladder functioning, or because of other causes.

Gallstones sometimes cause pain after eating, especially if a meal was large or high in fat.

Some people have gallbladder pain on an empty stomach. It can even wake them from sleep. Pain like this is sometimes called biliary colic.

It's important to have this kind of pain checked out. If your gallbladder is inflamed, it can be serious. You may even need surgery.

See a healthcare provider if your pain is:

  • In the middle or the right side of your upper abdomen
  • Behind your sternum
  • In your upper back or right shoulder
  • Gripping or gnawing

Other symptoms of gallstones include nausea and vomiting.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis can cause pain after eating. It often starts in the upper abdomen and spreads around to the back. You may also have nausea and vomiting—two telltale symptoms of pancreatitis that can separate it from other causes of stomach pain after eating.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, those with pancreatitis usually look and feel very sick.

In addition to nausea or vomiting, you should seek immediate medical care if you experience:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Severe pain in the abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Yellowish color of the skin or in the whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Any one of these signs could signal that you have an infection or a dangerous blockage in the pancreas, gallbladder, or a pancreatic duct.

Peptic Ulcer

Peptic ulcers are sores on the lining of the stomach or duodenum, which is the first part of your intestines.

These ulcers can cause pain that strikes anywhere between your breastbone (sternum) and your belly button, whether or not the stomach is empty. Pain specifically after eating usually means a gastric ulcer, or one that is in the stomach.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen), Bayer (aspirin), and Aleve (naproxen) can lead to peptic ulcers, especially if you take them for a long time.

Many ulcers are caused by common stomach bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). It is important to treat this infection. If you don't, it can lead to certain cancers of the gut.

Less Common Causes

Some less common causes of pain after eating include:

  • Aerophagy, or when you swallow too much air: While this can be due to eating too quickly, it can also be due to talking while eating or chewing gum after a meal.
  • Constipation: To ease any discomfort, avoid foods with little or no fiber, including chips, fast food, meat, and processed food. And drink plenty of water. Staying well-hydrated is a great way to avoid the pain and discomfort of constipation.
  • Intestinal ischemia, or a problem with blood supply to the small intestine
  • Cancer of the stomach or esophagus

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Pain in the body means something is wrong. If you feel pain after eating every once in a while and it doesn't keep you from functioning, you may want to mention it to your healthcare provider at your next visit.

But if you regularly have pain after eating, or your pain is significant, it's vital that you make an appointment with your healthcare provider right away. A proper diagnosis is the first step toward a treatment plan.

Seek emergency care if you have severe pain along with any of these symptoms:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Jaundice
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Severe vomiting

Summary

Many different digestive problems can cause pain after you eat. Indigestion, GERD, gallstones, IBS, and pancreatitis are some of the more common causes. There are some less common causes, too.

If you experience pain every now and then, there may not be any cause for concern. If it happens often, it's important to get evaluated right away. Some of the conditions that cause pain after eating are serious and need to be treated.

If you have severe pain with fever, vomiting, chills, fast heartbeat, or yellow eyes and skin, treat it as a medical emergency.

A Word From Verywell

Don't be surprised if your healthcare provider recommends that you embrace a high-fiber diet—no matter what may be causing your abdominal pain.

Time and again, research shows that a high-fiber diet protects against chronic illness and diseases, and is good for gut health. If nothing else, fiber is likely to keep you regular.

Just be careful not to overdo it; too much fiber can land you right back to where you started, with abdominal pain, bloating, and gas. Your healthcare provider should be able to help you strike the right balance with fiber intake.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is stomach pain after eating treated at home?

    At-home treatment options depend on the issue. You may consider an over-the-counter medication for gas or diarrhea, or NSAID pain relievers for mild stomach cramps. Drinking water, mint or ginger tea, avoiding spicy foods and bubbly beverages, and eating smaller meals slowly may also help.

  • Can pregnancy cause postprandial pain?

    Yes. Pregnancy hormones can affect the digestive system, slowing digestion in the stomach and small and large intestines. Since the gallbladder may also be slower to empty, it's possible that gallstones may eventually form. Plus, the growing uterus can press against the digestive tract.

Was this page helpful?
14 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.
  1. Michigan Health. 4 ways to stop digestive discomfort after a supersized meal.

  2. Northwestern Medicine. Quick Dose: Is Eating Too Fast Unhealthy?

  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition & facts of indigestion.

  4. Madisch A, Andresen V, Enck P, Labenz J, Frieling T, Schemann M. The diagnosis and treatment of functional dyspepsia. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2018;115(13):222-232. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2018.0222.

  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?

  6. University of Michigan-Michigan Medicine. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Irritable bowel syndrome.

  8. de Brito BB, da Silva FAF, Soares AS, et al. Pathogenesis and clinical management of Helicobacter pylori gastric infection. World J Gastroenterol. 2019;25(37):5578-5589. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v25.i37.5578.

  9. Gomes CF, Sousa M, Lourenço I, Martins D, Torres J. Gastrointestinal diseases during pregnancy: What does the gastroenterologist need to know? Ann Gastroenterol. 2018;31(4):385-394. doi:10.20524/aog.2018.0264.

  10. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of pancreatitis.

  11. National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Peptic ulcers.

  12. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Eating, diet, and nutrition for constipation.

  13. University Health News. High-fiber diet: Good for the gut, good for your overall health.

  14. University of Rochester Medical Center. Pregnancy: How your digestion changes.