Symptoms of Common Digestive Problems

Signs of Upper and Lower Abdominal Disorders Including Cancer

At some point or another, everyone deals with digestive problems, whether it's constipation, diarrhea, or just a general upset tummy. These issues range from things that are mildly inconvenient to ones that can be serious and life-threatening. Understanding what different symptoms might mean can help you manage the problem and find a long-term solution.

This article explains a range of digestive problems including those that affect the upper GI tract (from the mouth to the start of the small intestines) and lower GI tract (from the small intestines to the anus). It explains the symptoms of common ailments and signs that you should see a doctor.

upper and lower abdominal stomach symptoms causes
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Upper GI Symptoms

The digestive system consists of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract as well as the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. The GI tract itself makes up several parts. Doctors usually refer to one section as the upper GI tract and another part as the lower GI tract.

The mouth, esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine (duodenum) comprise the upper GI tract. If you have problems with the upper GI tract, you may have symptoms such as heartburn, problems swallowing or passing food along your esophagus and stomach, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Possible causes for these issues include:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): GERD is the main cause of heartburn, a burning sensation in the upper abdomen that usually occurs after you eat. When the muscles between the esophagus and stomach aren't working right, the contents of your stomach (including acid and food) go back up the esophagus. This is commonly called "reflux."
  • Peptic ulcers: A peptic ulcer occurs when acid or digestive enzymes eat away at the lining of the stomach or duodenum. Symptoms can include pain, bleeding, blockages in the digestive system. In some cases, the ulcers can result in life-threatening tears of the GI tract. Most peptic ulcers, whether in adults or children, are caused by a Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection.
  • Gastritis: Gastritis is an inflammation of the stomach lining with symptoms similar to heartburn. It's usually treated with medication to reduce stomach acid.
  • Gastroparesis: Also referred to as delayed gastric emptying, gastroparesis is a disorder in which the stomach takes too long to empty its contents. It is usually caused by damage to the stomach nerves. If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you're at an increased risk of gastroparesis.
  • Gallstones: Gallstones can form in the gallbladder when bile hardens. If gallstones block the ducts of the gallbladder, they can cause severe pain. Some gallstones never cause symptoms while others need to be surgically removed. 

Pain in the upper abdomen may not actually be caused by problems with the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum. Sometimes the pain originates from a problem elsewhere, such as a back muscle, and radiates (or travels via nerves) to the upper GI area. The same can happen with pain in the lower GI tract—pain may radiate from a source outside the lower abdomen.

Chronic Lower Abdominal Symptoms

The lower GI tract begins after the duodenum. It runs from the small intestines to the large intestines, or colon, to the anus.

There are several digestive disorders that can contribute to intestinal symptoms such as lower abdominal pain, cramping, and bowel movement problems.

Some common lower GI disorders include:

  • Celiac disease: People who have celiac disease can't eat gluten since it damages the small intestine. Celiac disease is often mistaken for other gastrointestinal disorders before it's correctly diagnosed. Your doctor needs to run blood tests and other labs to determine if your symptoms are related to celiac disease.
  • Diverticulitis: Diverticulitis is the inflammation of diverticula, which are bulging pouches in the walls of the intestines. Symptoms include sharp pains in the lower left abdomen, usually accompanied by a fever. If left untreated, diverticulitis can cause life-threatening complications.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: This is an umbrella term for two separate conditions: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Both are chronic conditions that require lifelong monitoring and treatment. 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): People dealing with this very common digestive disorder have recurring abdominal pain and may suffer from diarrhea, constipation, or both.

Recap

GI tract issues are very common, but it can be challenging to diagnose the exact cause since several disorders have similar symptoms.

Try to locate where you're feeling pain and what triggers the pain so you can get an idea of whether the problem is related to your upper GI tract or the lower. However, keep in mind that sometimes a stomach or lower GI tract pain could be caused by a problem somewhere else. A doctor can help you pinpoint the source.

Stomach Cancer Symptoms

Stomach cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in men and the seventh most common cancer in women. Often, stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, doesn't have symptoms in its early stages or the symptoms are similar to other stomach and GI disorders. However, there are some signs to watch for, especially if you have a family history of stomach cancer.

These "red-flag" symptoms include:

  • Prolonged lack of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme, persistent fatigue
  • Vomiting blood

Other possible symptoms could include anemia, blood in your stool, and recurrent pain.

When to See a Doctor

It's best to discuss any ongoing GI issues with a doctor. Pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea affect everyone from time to time, but if these are a regular occurrence, it's not normal. Importantly, anytime you have blood in your stool, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Treating GI issues doesn't just help relieve the immediate stomach or lower abdominal distress. Research shows the body's gastrointestinal system (also known as the gut) plays a large role in your overall health.

Talk to your regular doctor first. However, you may be recommended to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases and disorders of the digestive tract.

Summary

Your digestive system is like a conveyer belt that carries food from your mouth all the way through your body until the waste is excreted. There are many different spots along the way where your system can become inflamed, injured, or blocked. Upper GI issues often cause heartburn and pain or discomfort in the stomach or chest. Problems with the lower GI tract can cause cramping, constipation, or diarrhea.

Stomach cancer may cause symptoms similar to GI disorders. Look out for severe problems, such as bloody stool, which could be a sign of cancer or an emergency condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the symptoms of the stomach flu?

    Diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain are the most common signs of a stomach virus. Although it’s called the stomach flu, this virus has nothing to do with the flu. These symptoms are caused by other viruses, most commonly norovirus. Fever, headache, and body aches are other possible symptoms.

  • Why is my stomach making gurgling noises?

    Stomach gurgling is the sound of your digestive system contracting. You most commonly hear it when you’re hungry. Your gastrointestinal tract contracts when there’s food present and when there’s not, but you’re more likely to hear it when your stomach’s empty because there’s no food to absorb the sound, known as borborygmi.

  • Who is at risk for getting stomach cancer?

    Having a long-term H. pylori infection is one of the main risks for stomach cancer. However, most people who have this bacteria in their stomach never develop cancer. Obesity, excessive alcohol use, smoking, and a diet high in preservatives and salt can also increase your risk.

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.
  1. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Upper GI Disorders.

  2. Hernández C, Serrano C, Einisman H, et al. Peptic ulcer disease in Helicobacter pylori-infected children: clinical findings and mucosal immune response. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2014;59(6):773-8. doi:10.1097/MPG.0000000000000500

  3. Choung RS, Locke GR, Schleck CD, et al. Risk of gastroparesis in subjects with type 1 and 2 diabetes in the general population. Am J Gastroenterol. 2012;107(1):82-8. doi:10.1038/ajg.2011.310

  4. World Cancer Research Fund. Stomach cancer statistics.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Stomach Cancer.

  6. Rao M, Gershon MD. The bowel and beyond: the enteric nervous system in neurological disordersNat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2016;13(9):517-28. doi:10.1038/nrgastro.2016.107

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Do you think you have the stomach flu or a stomach bug? Updated March 5, 2021.

  8. American Cancer Society. Stomach Cancer Risk Factors.

Additional Reading

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.