Woman experiencing sharp stomach pain
"Health" is a broad term, and the conditions and diseases we develop will depend on various factors like genetics, environment and even our jobs. One thing we've all likely experienced is a stomach ache. You probably got your first one in your earliest days of life.
"Everyone has experienced a stomach ache before," says Dr. Rosario Ligresti, MD, the chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and director of The Pancreas Center at Hackensack University Medical Center. "In fact, pain in the abdomen is the leading gastrointestinal symptom that prompts a doctor's visit in the United States."
Research from 2020 notes that gastrointestinal-related issues are the most common symptom that leads someone to call an ambulance in the U.S. On the flip side, it can be easy to brush off stomach pain as "just gas" or "a little bloat." Gastroenterologists share it's best to avoid this temptation and tune into your body.
"When you feel pain in your stomach or abdominal area, pay attention," says Dr. Josh Forman, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. "Although the pain may be related to gas or a little bit of acid reflux, pain could be a sign of a serious problem."
Which is which? Good question—and the answer is key. Gastroenterologists weigh in on whether it's normal to get sharp stomach pains, what might be causing them and what to do next.
Is It Normal to Have Sharp Stomach Pains?
All four GI doctors we spoke with don't like using the word "normal" to describe any stomach pain, though the cause could be benign. "Pain in the abdomen is never normal, but that doesn't mean that pain is due to a serious condition," Dr. Ligresti says.
A Cleveland Clinic gastroenterologist prefers to use a different word. "It is not exactly 'normal,' but these aberrant occurrences are commonly experienced from time to time from a wide variety of causes," says Dr. Christine Y. Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist in the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at Cleveland Clinic.
Often, the cause isn't that serious. "Most stomach pains are temporary and are from benign causes, including indigestion, constipation and gas," says Dr. Rudolph Bedford, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
However, Dr. Bedford cautions that some causes can be life-threatening, so paying attention to your body is essential. Dr. Ligresti agrees, explaining, "Sharp, severe pain, or pain that does not quickly go away should raise a red flag."
Common Reasons for Sharp Stomach Pains
GI doctors share that reasons for sharp stomach pains range from severe to benign. The reasons for sharp stomach pain include:
A gas pocket. Dr. Ligresti says you'll experience gas or bloating, and the pain should be fleeting.
Intolerances or sensitivities to food, like lactose or gluten. Gas and bloating are symptoms of these issues too, Dr. Ligresti says.
Irritable bowel symptoms. Again, gas is one of the telltale signs, Dr. Ligresti shares.
Gastritis. Dr. Forman explains that gastritis is inflammation of the stomach. "Pain from gastritis is usually located in the top of the abdomen," Dr. Forman says. "Sharp pain in this area could be a clue that the stomach is inflamed."
Gallbladder issues. Issues with the gallbladder, like gallstones, can present with a sharp pain under the rib cage after eating, Dr. Ligresti says.
Blockages. Pain that happens in waves and all around the abdomen could be a flag that there's a blockage in or around the stomach. "For example, intestinal blockages can present this way and can be associated with nausea or vomiting," Dr. Ligresti explains.
Ulcers. Changes in bowel movements, including overt bleeding or dark stools, could signal something more serious like an ulcer, according to Dr. Ligresti. Dr. Forman says the pain can happen after eating, but not always. "Strangely, sometimes the pain can improve after eating," he explains.
Colitis. Dr. Forman explains that colitis is the clinical term for colon inflammation. "When the colon becomes inflamed, this can hurt and cause sharp pain or cramping," Dr. Forman says. "Pain from colitis tends to be located in the and can be accompanied by diarrhea, which can sometimes be bloody."
Appendicitis. This condition occurs when the appendix is inflamed. "Pain that starts in the right lower part of the abdomen, moves, and is made worse by movement can be a sign of appendicitis," Dr. Forman says. Sometimes, the pain can move to the middle of the stomach.
Stress. It's not just you. Dr. Lee says stress can trigger stomach pains.
Hunger. Your stomach may be telling you that it needs some filling. Dr. Lee explains that hunger is a common reason for stomachaches.
What to Do if You're Experiencing Sharp Stomach Pains
1. Keep a record
Data can help you help yourself (and assist your doctor with a diagnosis if necessary).
Dr. Lee suggests making a note of:
When the pain occurred
Where it occurred
How it occurred
Additional symptoms like vomiting
Your records might help you notice patterns. For instance, you may find the pain only happens after consuming dairy or with stress. Pinpointing these trends can help you and your doctor determine the next steps, like lifestyle changes or further testing.
3. Practice healthy habits
While some reasons for stomach pain will require medical treatment, like medications, the basic building blocks still apply.
"Make sure you are getting plenty of sleep, rest, hydration and regular exercises," Dr. Lee recommends. "These are very important habits that are often overlooked, and implementing these habits alone may improve [or] resolve your symptoms."
Speaking of which, regular check-ups with your healthcare team are also important.
"Check in with your primary care provider at least once a year and make sure all your health maintenance is up to date," Dr. Lee says. "Much like a car, central heating or air conditioner, regular maintenance is the key to longevity, higher performance and avoiding avoidable breakdowns."
4. Call a doctor
Sometimes, stomach pain can't wait for your annual physical."If you're having stomach pain that's localized or radiating and accompanied by any combination of appetite loss, fever, restlessness, nausea and vomiting, or bleeding, seek professional care to get to the bottom of it," Dr. Bedford says.
When in doubt, getting a doctor on the line is your best bet.
Dr. Rosario Ligresti, MD, the chief of the division of gastroenterology and director of The Pancreas Center at Hackensack University Medical Center
Prevalence and Characteristics of Abdominal Pain in the United States, Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol.
Dr. Josh Forman, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center
Dr. Christine Y. Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist in the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at Cleveland Clinic
Dr. Rudolph Bedford, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.