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Abdominal cramping is a painful condition caused by contractions of the muscles in and around the abdomen. The pain can be acute and sudden or chronic and gradual. Though most cases are caused by minor illnesses, severe cramping can sometimes be a sign of a more serious condition. Mild to moderate abdominal discomfort is generally a symptom of digestive problems or menstruation, but more severe pain may be caused by cancer, inflammation of an organ, or pregnancy-related disorders.
Many cases of abdominal cramping are caused by things like diarrhea, food poisoning, constipation, lactose intolerance, or excessive gas. More serious problems with the digestive system such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), ulcers, diverticular disease, bowel obstructions, or hernias may also cause cramps. Inflammation of the pancreas, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis frequently cause abdominal discomfort as well.
Women may experience abdominal cramping because of conditions affecting the ovaries and uterus. Menstrual cramps are one of the most common causes of abdominal pain for women, but other disorders may also cause a similar sensation. These include endometriosis, a condition in which cells from the uterus start to grow in other parts of the body, and uterine fibroids, which are benign tumors in the walls of the uterus. Some women also experience pain from ovarian cysts, which are small sacs of fluid that are generally benign, but may cause pain if they get too big.
Pregnant women are generally prone to gas and constipation, which makes them likely to get cramps, but they can also experience pain as the stomach ligaments stretch to accommodate the baby. Most of the time, abdominal cramps during pregnancy are nothing to worry about, but sharp pain and bloody discharge can be a sign of an ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, or labor. Preeclampsia and placental abruption can also cause severe abdominal pain. Any situation in which a woman experiences sudden, prolonged abdominal pain, particularly with a headache, nausea, or bloody discharge, should be immediately addressed by a medical professional.
People sometimes get abdominal cramps because of problems with organs that are near the abdominal cavity. This is known as referred pain because the discomfort is being transferred to the abdomen from another area of the body. Some common causes of this type of pain include kidney stones, gallbladder disease, and urinary tract infections. People may also get referred pain from conditions in the chest, like heart disease or pneumonia.
Less Frequent Causes
Some forms of cancer may lead to abdominal cramping, particularly in the later stages. This is particularly common with cancers of the liver, stomach, and reproductive organs. Another less usual cause is somatization disorder, an emotional condition primarily found in children that causes symptoms such as abdominal pain and strep throat. In rare cases, pain in the abdomen may be an indication of a medical emergency, such as when an organ ruptures. When this occurs, additional symptoms often include a stomach that is stiff to the touch, fever, and nausea or vomiting. This happens the most often with the appendix, but can occur with other organs too.
Treating Abdominal Cramps
The treatment for abdominal cramps almost always involves addressing the underlying cause. It's generally safe to treat mild to moderate symptoms with over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, though they are not safe for people with certain conditions, including ulcers and liver disease. Pain from indigestion or gas can often be relieved with antacids. People also commonly use heating pads or hot water bottles to relieve abdominal pain, particularly that from menstrual cramps. For conditions with no cure, like IBS, doctors usually prescribe an antispasmodic or antidiarrheal medication. Anyone experiencing severe or prolonged cramping, vomiting, constipation, or bloody discharge or stool should see a medical professional.