Abdominal Pain: Common, But Not Simple

By Brendan Furlong, MD, Chief of Service, Emergency Department, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

Dr. Brendan Furlong
Brendan Furlong, MD, discusses the symptoms and severity of abdominal pain and when to seek medical treatment.

When someone complains of pain in the abdomen, most people don’t think anything of it. After all, it’s probably just a stomachache from indigestion or nerves.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “abdominal pain” is the most common reason for a trip to the Emergency Department (ED). That’s because it’s a complex symptom with many possible causes, and it should never be ignored. But that doesn’t mean every pain should send you to the ED.

Abdominal pain is used to describe pain that occurs between your chest and groin. It can come on suddenly (acute pain) or build slowly; be sharp or dull; and be a symptom of anything from colon cancer to menstrual cramps.

How Serious Is Abdominal Pain?

While acute abdominal pain isn’t always a sign of a serious condition—though it certainly can be—a dull, slow-building pain shouldn’t be shrugged off. For example, a patient with appendicitis, which is life-threatening without immediate treatment, may have low-level abdominal pain for days, making it easy to dismiss. But even minor abdominal pain can be a sign that something is seriously wrong.

Keeping Track of Symptoms and Severity

The abdomen is home to the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, kidneys, small intestine and large intestine, so isolating the location of the pain—Is it in the middle of your chest? On the lower right side? All over?—can help narrow down which organs are involved.

Patients should pay close attention to any changes in pain—Does it come in waves? Has it moved from one part of the abdomen to another? Is it worse when you lie down?—and tell their doctors about any history of pain or issues in the abdominal area.

Because the abdomen is home to so many different organs, your doctor will perform a physical exam and may conduct more tests to pinpoint the problem and decide on the best treatment. Imaging, such as a CT scan or ultrasound, and analyzing blood and urine will help rule out certain conditions.

When To Seek Treatment

woman with abdominal pains
If you have severe, prolonged or chronic abdominal pain or are concerned about any of your symptoms, see your doctor or go to the Emergency Department for evaluation.

If the pain seems to be from acid reflux, it is generally safe to try an antacid or an over-the-counter H2 blocker. If these are not effective or seem to be needed regularly, you should seek medical attention.

The causes of abdominal pain are very broad and can range from trivial to life-threatening, so it is difficult to give comprehensive advice. If you have any concerns regarding the symptoms and signs discussed above, be sure to reach out to your doctor or get to the ED right away.

Regardless of severity or duration, abdominal pain is not something to be taken lightly. Don’t hesitate to discuss your symptoms with a healthcare professional, or go to the ED to get help.

Learn More

For more information more about abdominal pain or to make an appointment with one of our physicians, call 855-213-2315. Visit MedStarGeorgetown.org/ED for more information about emergency, urgent and trauma care.