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Acute Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain (sometimes referred to as a stomachache) is one of the most common heard by physicians, and not always cause for alarm. There are over 100 conditions that include abdominal pain as a symptom. The most common causes are infection, abnormal growths, inflammation and intestinal obstruction (blockage) or disorders.

While some of these conditions can be treated with medication or minor procedures, sudden, severe abdominal pain can be a medical emergency, requiring immediate and specific diagnosis, and possibly surgical treatment.

The general surgeons affiliated with Memorial Hermann specialize in performing surgeries for a variety of abdominal conditions, including appendicitis, hernia, kidney stones, gallbladder diseases, diverticulitis, and more.

Characteristics of Abdominal Pain

In order to determine if your pain is a minor stomachache or something more serious, it’s best to focus on the characteristics of the abdominal pain itself. What does it feel like? Did it occur suddenly or slowly build over time? Is the pain localized within a single area, or is it coming from somewhere else?

Your doctor will ask these types of questions during your examination to help reach an accurate diagnosis. Before your appointment, consider the following factors so you can clearly communicate your condition:

  • Quality: Is the pain sharp, dull, stabbing, cramping or burning?
  • Duration: Has the pain been brief, continuous, intermittent or varying in intensity?
  • Triggering events: What events seem to trigger, intensify or relieve your pain, including food consumption, positioning or movement of your body, bowel movements, vomiting or other activities?

Acute Abdominal Pain Causes and Risk Factors

The abdominal region encompasses the area between the chest and pelvic regions, and contains some of your body’s most vital organs – including the stomach, liver, kidneys and intestinal tract. As such, there are a wide variety of conditions that can cause abdominal pain. These could be mechanical, viral, bacterial or parasitic in nature.

Some of the more likely conditions to cause acute abdominal pain are:

In some cases, abdominal pain may be caused by conditions affecting other parts of the body, such as heart attack, pneumonia, diseases of the pelvis or groin, rash from shingles, poisonings and spider bites.

Diagnosing Acute Abdominal Pain

Often a surgeon will be involved in the evaluation of severe abdominal pain. The surgeon will ask questions about your symptoms and medical history, and will perform a physical examination, including tapping or touching the abdominal area (called palpation), to determine which tests need to be performed.

Pinpointing the location of acute abdominal pain will help your doctor diagnose the cause of your pain. For example:

  • Abdominal pain on your upper-left side might suggest an enlarged spleen
  • Abdominal pain on your upper-right side could be hepatitis or gallbladder disease
  • Abdominal pain on your lower-left side could be an indicator of diverticulitis, ovarian cysts or ovarian torsion
  • Abdominal pain on your lower-right side might indicate appendicitis or ovary problems
  • Upper abdominal pain can be caused by stomach ulcers, gastritis or pancreatitis
  • Lower abdominal pain could signify one of many conditions, including urinary tract infections or gynecologic problems, such as uterine fibroids or cancer

Your doctor will ask questions about the location and other characteristics of your abdominal pain, including any additional symptoms you may be experiencing. He/she may also order imaging tests such as MRI scans, CT scans and ultrasounds to view a specific organ, tissue or other part of your abdomen in greater detail. If the abdominal pain is related to the digestive system, a colonoscopy or endoscopy may be scheduled.

Treatment Options for Acute Abdominal Pain

Your doctor will prescribe a treatment regimen based on your individual diagnosis. Depending on the underlying condition, they may prescribe medication, lifestyle changes or inpatient or outpatient procedures, including surgery.

The skilled general surgeons affiliated with Memorial Hermann specialize in performing minimally invasive surgical procedures, such as laparoscopy , to treat the underlying causes of acute abdominal pain. During laparoscopic surgery, a few small incisions are made in the abdomen and a tiny camera (laparoscope) is inserted to view inside the body while special instruments are used to repair or remove affected organ(s). This technique often results in fewer complications, smaller scars and a shorter recovery time.

Listed below are a few of the laparoscopic procedures our affiliated surgeons provide for patients with acute abdominal pain:

  • Laparoscopic colon resection
  • Laparoscopic small bowel resection
  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy
  • Laparoscopic appendectomy

For a full list of the minimally invasive surgical procedures we provide, visit our Robotic and Minimally Invasive Procedures page.

What to Do if You Have Acute Abdominal Pain

If you, or a family member, are experiencing any of the following symptoms, seek immediate emergency medical attention (call 911 or go to an Emergency Room):

  • Sudden, severe pain
  • Signs of shock, including rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, sweating and confusion
  • Constant pain that doubles you over and/or pain that worsens with gentle touching or with bumping the bed
  • Swelling of the abdomen

The best approach to treatment is a proactive one. Abdominal pain can be caused by a potentially life-threatening condition, but most people don’t take action until the pain becomes too much to bear. Even if you’re unsure about the severity of your condition, it’s still important to have yourself cleared by a medical professional.

Schedule an appointment today with a Memorial Hermann-affiliated physician using our online ScheduleNow portal or by filling out a contact us form.