Health & Wellness Services

No Title

Section I–Common Health Problems - Abdominal Pain

HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

Table of Contents

 Section I–Common Health Problems

 Next Topic

Abdominal Pain

“When I got to school, my
stomach did a lot of back flips because of all of the
new foods. I miss my mom’s cooking.”

John L., Notre Dame

The abdomen is the body
region between the lower ribs and the pelvis that contains many vital


Abdominal pain can range from
mild to severe: be dull or sharp; acute or chronic. Acute pain is sudden
pain. Chronic pain can be constant or pain that recurs over time. The type
of pain, its location, and other symptoms that come with it help suggest the

Signs, Symptoms & Causes

There are many causes of
abdominal pain. Common ones in students and
the symptoms that accompany them are listed

Constipation results from not drinking enough fluids, not eating
enough dietary fiber, not being active enough, and from misusing laxatives.
Symptoms of constipation are:

A hard time passing stool, not being able
to pass stool, and/or having very hard stools
Straining to have a bowel movement
Abdominal swelling or feeling of continued
fullness after passing stool

Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the lining
of the stomach and intestines. Causes include having an intestinal virus,
food poisoning, and drinking contaminated water or too much alcohol.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis include:

Abdominal pain or

Nausea and/or vomiting


Fever and/or chills

It may be hard to tell from
symptoms if you have an intestinal virus or food poisoning. Suspect food
poisoning if others who have eaten the same foods you did also have

Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance results from a lack of an
enzyme (lactase) needed to digest the sugar (lactose) in dairy products.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance are:

Abdominal cramping, pain, and bloating
after drinking milk or eating other dairy products
Gas and diarrhea

Menstrual Cramps in Females
Hormones cause the uterus to go into spasms.
Premenstrual bloating increases the abdominal pain. Symptoms of menstrual
cramps are:

Mild to severe
abdominal pain

Back pain, fatigue,
and/or diarrhea

Peptic Ulcer
A peptic ulcer is an ulcer in the stomach or
first section of the small intestine. Symptoms include:

A gnawing or burning
pain between the breastbone and navel. This is the most common symptom.
The pain often occurs between meals and in the morning. It may last from
a few minutes to a few hours and may be relieved with eating or

Loss of appetite and
weight loss

Nausea or vomiting
dark, red blood or material that looks like coffee grounds

Bloody, black, or tarry

The 2 most common factors associated with peptic ulcers are:

An infection with
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria.
The repeated use of aspirin
and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as
over-the-counter and prescribed ibuprofen.
Peptic ulcers are not caused
by stress, but stress can aggravate them. (See “Stress”.)


Treatment depends on the cause. The key is knowing when it’s just a minor
problem like a mild stomach ache or when it’s something worse. Pain that
persists can be a sign of a medical condition or illness. Very severe
abdominal pain usually requires immediate medical care.

Questions to Ask

Is the abdominal pain very severe? Is the pain so bad
that you can’t move or gets a lot worse when you move?

Are all of these symptoms of appendicitis present?
  • You have not had your appendix removed.
  • Pain that usually starts in
    the upper part of the stomach or around the belly button and that moves to the lower right part of the abdomen. The pain can be sharp and severe.
  • Tenderness when the right lower area of the abdomen is pressed
  • Nausea, vomiting, or no appetite
  • Mild fever

For females, do you have the following
signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)?
  • You are sexually active and have missed one or more periods or have vaginal bleeding you can’t explain.
  • Cramping or pain that can be severe in your lower abdomen
  • Sudden fainting or

Do you have signs and symptoms of an
acute kidney infection?

Do you have the following signs and symptoms of kidney
  • Pain that started in your
    mid back and then moved to your abdomen or groin
  • Frequent urination (but you only pass small amounts of urine)
  • Inability to urinate except in certain positions
  • Bloody urine
  • Chills and/or fever
  • Nausea and vomiting

With abdominal pain, do you have any of these problems?
  • The whites of your eyes or your skin looks yellow.
  • A recent injury or blow to
    the abdomen
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Constipation for more than
    a week
  • Lightheadedness or
  • Sensitive skin on the
  • Fever

With abdominal pain, do you have signs and symptoms of a
bladder infection?

With abdominal pain, are any of these conditions present?
  • Constant belching, nausea, gas, or gurgling noises
  • Worsening pain when bending over or lying down
  • Possible pregnancy
  • Menstrual cramps severe enough to keep you from going to classes
    or to work nearly every month



To Help Ease Pain in General:

Place a hot water bottle or a
heating pad, set on low, over the area of
Find a comfortable position.
Take an over-the-counter
medicine for pain that does not cause stomach
upset. (See “OTC Medications”)
Don’t wear tight-fitting
Don’t do strenuous exercise.
Eat foods as tolerated.

For Constipation:

Eat foods high in fiber:
Bran; whole-grain breads and cereals; and fresh fruits
and vegetables.

Drink at least 11/2
to 2 quarts of water and other liquids every day. Hot water, tea, or
coffee may help stimulate the bowel.
Get plenty of exercise.
Don’t resist the urge to have
a bowel movement.
Antacids and iron supplements
can be binding.
If you get constipated easily,
discuss the use of these with your provider.
Don’t use “stimulant”
laxatives, such as Ex-Lax, or enemas without your
provider’s okay.
Long-term use of them can
make you even more constipated and lead to
a mineral imbalance and reduced
nutrient absorption. If needed, take an
over-the-counter bulk-forming laxative, such as Metamucil.

For Food Poisoning:

To prevent food poisoning:

Wash your hands and food
preparation surfaces and utensils,
especially after handling raw meat and eggs.
Cook foods to a safe
temperature. Follow product and/or recipe
Refrigerate perishable
foods promptly. These include milk, cheese, meat,
poultry, eggs, and fish. Refrigerate leftovers,
and use them within 3 to 4 days.
Hot foods should be kept at
or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cold foods should be kept at
or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Carry items in a thermos or
with a cold pack, if necessary.
When in doubt, throw it

When you have food poisoning,
follow self-care measures in “Vomiting &

For Lactose Intolerance:

See “Self-Care for Lactose

For Menstrual Cramps:

Take an over-the-counter
medicine for menstrual cramps. (See “OTC
regarding "Menstrual cramps")
Drink hot tea, (regular,
chamomile, or mint).
Hold a heating pad or hot water bottle on your abdomen or lower back.
Take a warm bath.
Gently massage your abdomen.
Do mild exercises, such as
yoga and walking.
When you can, lie on your
back and support your knees with a pillow.
Rest. Avoid stress as your
period approaches.

{Note: If you get stomach
aches due to stress, see “Stress” for information on how to deal
with it.}

6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine
All rights reserved.
The content on this website is proprietary.

December 08, 2005