When Stomach Pain Is (and Is Not) an Emergency

Woman on bed with cramps
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Stomach pain can have a variety of causes, some of which you can address by resting, avoiding heavy and spicy foods, taking medication, or using a heating pad. Others, however, may require urgent medical care. While it can be hard to determine this on your own, at least with total certainty, there are some guidelines you can use to figure out if you should head to the ER, your doctor's office, or try some at-home solutions. Regardless of how your case matches up, if you feel severe, out-of-the-norm pain that you think needs immediate attention, seek it.

When to Call an Ambulance or Go to the ER

Stomach pain can be caused by a life-threatening condition, such as appendicitis, bowel obstruction (blockage of food material somewhere in the small or large intestine), or a bowel perforation (a leak of food material from the intestines). These emergencies usually cause very noticeable and often intolerable signs and symptoms.

Your stomach pain is probably a sign of an urgent medical problem if:

  • You are pregnant
  • Your pain started within a week of having abdominal surgery or a gastrointestinal procedure (even a diagnostic endoscopy)
  • You have ever had a gastric bypass, a colostomy, or a bowel resection
  • Your pain started shortly after you experienced severe abdominal trauma
  • Your abdomen appears bruised or is rapidly expanding in size

Your stomach pain may be mild in the beginning, and then you may develop associated symptoms after a few hours. You should get help immediately if you develop any of the following symptoms along with your stomach pain:

  • Abdomen that is extremely hard
  • Abdominal tenderness when it is touched
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Inability to have a bowel movement accompanied by vomiting
  • Pain in neck, shoulder or between shoulder blades
  • Vision changes

Call for an ambulance or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room. In these instances, you should not "wait and see" or take medicine for the pain. Get help right away.

When to Call Your Doctor

There's a bit of a gray area in terms of which stomach pain cases need immediate attention and which would warrant a call or visit to your doctor instead, as there can be symptom overlap. Again, listen to your body and your instincts if you're not sure.

If don't have any of the symptoms listed above and instead have any of the following features of your abdominal pain, it is important that you contact your doctor within a day or two:

You should also call your doctor if you experience stomach pain while you are being treated for cancer.

When Your Stomach Pain Is Not an Emergency

If your stomach pain is not severe, persistent, or associated with concerning symptoms like those already discussed, it is likely to resolve on its own. Abdominal pain is usually caused by minor problems such as constipation, trapped gas, or eating something that didn't agree with you, like a high dairy meal or a spice that you aren't used to. Waiting a few hours, having a bowel movement, or passing gas usually helps.

There are a few things you can do so that you can be more comfortable and to help relieve your symptoms as your pain resolves:

  • Limit yourself to clear liquids for a few hours.
  • If you experience vomiting and/or diarrhea, stick with the BRAT diet and other mild foods until your symptoms start to subside.
  • Avoid foods that are tough on the digestive system, such as food that is high in fat, fried foods, spicy foods, and drinks containing alcohol or caffeine.
  • Try an over-the-counter antacid or gas-relieving product.
  • Try to have a bowel movement. Often, eating raw fruit, vegetables, beans, or high-fiber cereal can help.
  • Use a hot water bottle or heating pad. This may help to soothe your pain. Place the pad on your abdomen for half-hour intervals and be sure to use a towel under the pad to protect your skin.

Your symptoms may completely improve within one to two days. If they do not, call your doctor's office for advice.

Recurrent Symptoms

If your stomach pain resolves and recurs again after weeks or months, try to observe whether certain foods or medications trigger the pain. If you notice such a trend, you may be able to avoid stomach pain by avoiding these items.

A Word From Verywell

Stomach pain is very common, and you have probably experienced some that got better on its own. Severe stomach pain can be alarming, and there are so many causes that it can be hard to figure out whether your stomach pain is due to something serious or not.

Often, if you have other associated symptoms, or if your pain is severe or persistent, this is a clue that a serious condition is to blame. If you are not sure whether your stomach pain is serious, it is best to seek medical attention.

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