You eat a meal. Your stomach hurts. You pop an over-the-counter medication. You feel better. Or sometimes you don’t.
What does it mean?
The usual suspect
In many cases, it’s a simple case of indigestion (also called dyspepsia), which causes abdominal pain, bloating and feelings of fullness. As long as it only happens occasionally, that’s probably all it is.
But if it happens frequently, or if symptoms last for a week or more and medications don’t alleviate the issues, it could be something more serious, said gastroenterologist Mayra Sanchez, MD, who practices in central and western Connecticut.
The good news
“There are a number of diagnostic options and technology available to help identify the different gastric ailments,” said Dr. Sanchez.
Many of the most common ones are treatable, she added, but leaving symptoms untreated can lead to more serious problems.
Some of the most common causes include:
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Also known as GERD, this condition happens when stomach acid irritates the lining of your esophagus, creating heartburn and stomach pain in the process. Sanchez said GERD is often treatable with lifestyle changes such as:
- Healthier diet
- Losing weight
- Reduction in caffeine, spicy foods and alcohol
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common, chronic disorder that affects the large intestine. It can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea (gastroenteritis) caused by bacteria or a virus, or might also be associated with a surplus of bacteria in the intestines. People exposed to stressful events, especially in childhood, tend to have more symptoms of IBS.
Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten that can impact sufferers in different ways. One is stomach pain after you eat gluten. With celiac, a person’s small intestine becomes damaged when they eat gluten.
Other people may suffer from gluten intolerance, which causes a more simple physical reaction like diarrhea or gas after eating gluten.
Sanchez said she sees patients who live daily with stomach pain, and they tell her they were diagnosed many years ago with IBS.
“But back then, often these diagnoses were based on assumptions,” she said. “Today, we have tests to be more accurate. And it often turns out they don’t have IBS, they have celiac, or gastroparesis.”
Also known as “slow stomach,” gastroparesis results in partial paralysis of your stomach muscles and prevents proper digestion. Because of this, food remains in your stomach longer and your stomach can’t accommodate more. This results in cramping or spasms, nausea or vomiting.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
SIBO is a condition in which the small intestine is colonized with micro-organisms that normally live in the large intestine. You have more than 100 trillion microbes in your body. They stimulate the immune system, help digest food, and synthesize vitamins like vitamins K and B.
Risk factors for SIBO are chronic use of proton pump inhibitors, GI surgeries, gastroparesis and constipation among others.
When to see a doctor
“If you are having abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, for many days, then you need to see your doctor,” Dr. Sanchez said. “If you have any of those symptoms and you have a fever, you need to see your doctor.”
If you experience sudden, severe abdominal pain, with or without fever and chills, or vomit blood or see blood in your stool, you need to go to the Emergency Room, she added.