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9 Possible Causes for Stomach Pain and How to Treat Them

You may have heard the sayings, “Trust your gut” or “Listen to your gut instinct,” and there’s a reason for them. Our stomachs are our second brains. When something is up, just like your brain, your stomach is going to let you know.

When you’re hungry, it growls. When you’re full, it gurgles. When you’re nervous, it flips. But what do you do if your stomach is clearly saying, “Ouch, help!”?

“The causes of stomach pain can be difficult to pinpoint because there are so many conditions that can contribute, from the very common to the very rare and everything in between,” said Joel Cooper, DO, a family medicine physician at Banner Urgent Care. “Most cases of abdominal pain aren’t serious, but a few can be, so it’s always good to get checked out by your doctor.”

Let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in the world today that can wreak havoc on our gut—and our brain. Dr. Cooper shared some of the most common causes for stomach aches and how to take care of them.

1. Food poisoning

Are you regretting eating Aunt Sarah’s famous potato salad at the summer picnic? Food poisoning is a common, yet painful problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 48 million Americans get sick each year from food poisoning.

You can get food poisoning after eating spoiled food (like Aunt Sarah’s sun-soaked potato salad) or drinking something that has been contaminated by bacteria, parasites or viruses. You may experience pain, stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. But food poisoning is usually transient, meaning it typically clears up in 24 hours or less.

How to treat

“The most important thing is to stay hydrated,” Dr. Cooper said. “And you’ll also want to get plenty of rest as you ride it out. If things don’t get better, call your doctor.”

[Check out "5 Tips to Prevent Dehydration When You Have Diarrhea and Vomiting."]

2. Indigestion

There’s not always an obvious reason for indigestion, but for most people it’s a result of eating or drinking too much too soon, eating spicy or high-fat foods and eating during stressful situations. Being tired or stressed, smoking and drinking caffeinated or carbonated beverages can also contribute or make it worse.

How to treat

We all have indigestion at times, but usually it isn’t serious. Time and giving your poor stomach a rest usually heals it. If you’re having persistent indigestion, however, you’ll want to check in with your doctor.

3. Constipation

What happens (or doesn’t) happen in the bathroom is your business. But when “business is slow” down below, it can be uncomfortable and even a bit painful. If you’re constipated, you may have a feeling of being bloated and full, and your abdomen may even look visibly swollen. It happens most often due to changes in your diet or routine, from certain medications or stress.

How to treat

“Constipation can range from intermittent and non-serious to severe,” Dr. Cooper said. “There are some things you can do at home to remedy it, but if you’re experiencing pain or rectal bleeding, you’ll want to seek medical care.” Drink plenty of water and exercise regularly to help prevent constipation.

[To help get things moving, read “Is Squatting the Answer: How to Deal with Constipation.”]


Occasional heartburn is nothing to worry about, but chronic heartburn, known as acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can really burn. Too much acid in your stomach can cause a host of issues, including burning in your chest, having a sour taste in your mouth, a sore throat and a dry cough.

How to treat

For minor issues, antacids and proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec can be helpful, but if you’re still having symptoms for a couple weeks, you’ll want to see your doctor. “It’s important to see your doctor because too much acid that refluxes upward can set the stage for Barrett’s esophagus, which can increase your risk for developing esophageal cancer,” Dr. Cooper said.

[To fight the burn, check out "A Fire in Your Belly: How to Extinguish GERD."]

5. Lactose intolerance

Some people just can’t stomach milk. When they do, they may suffer from gas, bloating, pain and diarrhea. Symptoms can vary based on the amount of lactose you’ve had and the amount of lactase your body produces.

How to treat

Fortunately today, there are whole sections of the dairy aisle dedicated to alternative milks giving those with lactose intolerance a lot to cheer about these days. You may also want to visit with your doctor just to get confirmation and rule out any other digestive issues.

[For healthy alternatives that still pack a protein punch, check out “Decoding Six Milks and Milk Alternatives.”]

6. Appendicitis

If you’re experiencing sharp pain in your lower right abdomen that may have started at your belly button and has migrated down and to the right over several hours, you may have appendicitis. Appendicitis happens when the appendix gets inflamed and filled with pus, often from an infection.

“A common finding with appendicitis is a ‘hamburger sign’ or loss of appetite, especially for food one normally loves and relishes,” Dr. Cooper said. “You may also experience a fever, vomiting and distinct type of pain in the lower right abdomen when traveling over bumps and potholes in a car.”

How to treat

Appendicitis often requires surgery before the appendix ruptures. If your pain is persistent and comes on suddenly, you should see a doctor immediately.

7. Gynecological

Females may suffer unique types of abdominal pain, although typically pain is in the lower abdomen or the pelvis. Sometimes the pain may be due to menstruation or ovulation while other times it may signal something more serious like a urinary tract infection, a ruptured ovarian cyst or an ectopic pregnancy.

How to treat

While OTC medicine and a warm compress can help relieve some minor menstrual cramping, if you’re experiencing persistent stomach pain or painful cramping before or during your period, consult your OBGYN or primary care physician.

8. IBS

If irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the cause of your stomach pain, it may get worse after you eat or if you’re stressed. Symptoms of IBS may include changes in bowel movements such as diarrhea or constipation, bloating and cramping, but they will not cause bleeding or weight loss. You may experience it in your lower abdomen but sometimes all over the belly.

How to treat

Symptoms can usually be controlled by managing what you eat, your stress level and lifestyle. If you’re experiencing weight loss, fatigue and notice blood in your stools, you’ll want to see your doctor. This could be a sign of an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

9. Gall bladder

If you find yourself doubled over in pain after eating a fatty meal, you may be experiencing a gall bladder attack. “While problems with the gall bladder usually present in the upper right part of your abdomen, many people experience stomach pain,” Dr. Cooper said. The pain becomes worse after eating and may come and go, becoming more constant and severe over time.

How to treat

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a gallbladder attack, schedule an appointment with your doctor to get evaluated.

Final takeaway

“Remember your stomach is your second brain; respect it,” Dr. Cooper said. “Be kind to your stomach, and chances are – at least most of the time – it’ll be kind to you.”

While mild abdominal pain or tummy troubles are normal from time to time, certain symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. If there’s been significant changes or worsening of your symptoms or you have pain accompanied with black, tarry stools, vomiting of blood or unexplained weight loss, contact your doctor right away. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit

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