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Abdominal pain is pain that occurs anywhere in the abdominal cavity – in the stomach, small intestine, colon, liver, gallbladder, kidneys, uterus, ovaries or pancreas. The pain is often non-specific and can signify a variety of conditions. Sometimes the pain is directly related to a specific organ but most commonly, abdominal pain originates in the digestive system. It can be sharp, dull, stabbing or crampy, lasting from a few minutes to many hours, and be constant or intermittent.


What causes abdominal pain?


  • Inflammation (for example, appendicitis, diverticulitis, colitis)
  • Food poisoning and other infections
  • Stomach muscle cramping (often together with vomiting and/or diarrhoea)
  • Ulcers and/or heartburn (acid reflux disease)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), thought to be due to muscle spasms or hypersensitivity of the digestive tract
  • Obstruction of the intestine
  • Gallstones or kidney stones
  • Swelling of the liver with hepatitis
  • Loss of blood supply to an organ
  • Period problems
  • Pregnancy problems
  • Cancer
  • Some other conditions arising outside the abdomen, such as shingles, poisonous insect bites, diseases of the reproductive system and even heart attacks


When do I need to see the doctor?

As the list of possible causes above suggests, abdominal pain can be difficult to diagnose correctly. Pain caused by abdominal conditions may not even be felt in the abdomen, but be referred to the middle or lower back area. Symptoms may be similar for different conditions, such as IBS, bowel obstruction and ulcers. You should seek medical help if you have any of these signs or symptoms:


  • Pain that lasts more than six hours or is getting worse
  • Pain accompanied by vomiting more than three or four times
  • Pain with vaginal bleeding, whether you are pregnant or not
  • Pain with bleeding from the bowel, in the vomit or in the urine
  • Pain with orange colour in urine
  • Pain accompanied by fever over 101°F (37.5°C)
  • Pain together with inability to urinate or severe constipation
  • Pain with abdominal bloating


What is the treatment?

Treatment will vary, depending on the diagnosis.  Cramping pains can often be alleviated by analgesic medications like paracetamol, ibuprofen, or a combination of Paracetamol 500mg + Ibuprofen 150mg. Be careful with aspirin, which may upset the stomach, and codeine, which is addictive and may have other unwanted side effects such as constipation.

Heartburn may respond to antacids, but the problem will probably not resolve itself without prescription medication such as omeprazole.

You may get relief from the pain associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome by taking an anti-spasmodic medication. This relieves the muscle spasms in the gastrointestinal tract. As always, “if pain persists, see your doctor”, who will investigate and prescribe pain relief appropriate to the condition.




More information

Coeliac Society of NZ (Inc)


The IBS Network


EMedicine Health

Enter an appropriate search term e.g. “irritable bowel” or “abdominal pain” to get a list of links





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