What are stomach cramps?
The term stomach cramps are used to describe any pain arising in the area of the abdomen, which extends from just under the bottom of the ribs to the top of the pubic bone.
There are many different causes of stomach cramps since every structure located within the abdomen (e.g. stomach, bowel, gallbladder, liver, spleen, appendix, kidneys, bladder and pancreas) may give rise to stomach cramps.
Also, the spine, back muscles, large blood vessels, and reproductive organs can produce pain felt in the abdomen. Occasionally, a heart attack can be the cause of abdominal pain.
How is stomach cramps diagnosed and treated?
Stomach cramps is always a symptom of an underlying disorder. Diagnosis is therefore aimed at discovering the exact cause of the history of the pain, an examination, and further tests, if necessary.
Treatment given will depend on the cause and may be anything from a laxative for constipation to surgery or radiotherapy for cancer. We have all experienced the abdominal pain of one sort or another.
Wind, indigestion, period pain and gastroenteritis are all common causes. However, obstruction or tumors of the abdominal organs can also cause abdominal pain, and although these are more serious, they are much less common.
Causes of stomach cramps
Stomach cramps have many different causes, including,
such as indigestion, gastroenteritis, appendicitis, ulcers, irritable bowel.
such as cystitis, kidney problems,
Reproductive disorders, such as period pains, pelvic inflammatory disease, pregnancy problems.
When should I see my doctor?
You should see your doctor if the stomach cramps are sudden and severe or if it persists for more than four hours. Associated symptoms that warrant seeing your doctor immediately include blood in the urine, vomit or faeces, weight loss, a change in the bowel habits, a previous history of a stomach ulcer, a high temperature, a burning sensation passing urine, a fresh blow to the abdomen and jaundice.
If you are pregnant and experience abdominal pain, you should also see your doctor. If the pain is associated with diarrhea and vomiting, and you know that you have eaten something likely to cause it, then you should see your doctor. It may be food poisoning, and its cause should be identified.
What will the doctor do?
The doctor will ask some detailed questions to try and identify the likely cause of your pain. You will be examined. The doctor will gently feel all parts of your abdomen and may listen to it with a stethoscope. A rectal or vaginal examination may be necessary.
If the cause of the pain is evident and severe, such as a perforated ulcer, appendicitis or a tumor, you will be sent to the hospital to see a surgeon who will discuss the implications of the pain with you. An operation will probably be necessary. If the diagnosis is less clear, your doctor may order some investigations.
These will probably involve looking into the abdomen and may include particular types of X-ray, scans or gastroscopy or sigmoidoscopy (a visual examination of the inside of the stomach or bowel using a telescopic tube). The doctor may also order blood tests or a microscopic review of the urine or faeces.
What can I do myself?
Make a careful note of the nature of the pain:
Where is it exactly?
When did it start?
Is it intermittent or continuous?
Is it getting worse?
Did anything bring it on?
Is it related to posture,
Is it better or worse when upright or lying down or when moving?
Do you have any other symptoms?
Does anything make it better e.g. antacids, laxatives or a hot-water bottle?
Is it related to your menstrual cycle?
These are the questions your doctor will ask, and accurate answers will help considerably when making the diagnosis.
What can I do to avoid stomach cramps?
As the digestive system accounts for a significant proportion of abdominal pain, a healthy diet high in fiber and low in fat will certainly reduce the likelihood of some causes.
Gastroenteritis can usually be avoided by proper food hygiene.
Is stomach cramps dangerous?
Stomach cramps can be hazardous, depending on the cause, particularly if it is the result of a tumor, ulcer, appendicitis, bowel obstruction or ectopic pregnancy (although treatment of all these conditions is usually highly successful).
Stomach cramps are not dangerous if it is caused by indigestion, a muscle sprain, irritable bowel or period pain. If in any doubt you should always see your doctor.
Advise on stomach cramps
Most abdominal pain is self-limiting and related to simple indigestion. Try to identify and avoid foods which produce these reactions.
Seek medical attention if you have pain that does not go away in a few hours or if other symptoms are present, such as fever, weakness, sweating, pallor or bleeding from the mouth or bowel.