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What Causes Abdominal Cramping?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

Digestive Conditions

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-Specific Disorders

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.

Referred Pain

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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon999767 — On Mar 12, 2018

I have this severe cramps in my stomach. I have been to the hospital but they only told me I will be OK. This hurts so much at some point I will cry myself to bed. Since I gave birth 1 year and 7 months I have never seen my period.

By anon991396 — On Jun 18, 2015

I often have the stomach cramps and when they start, I cant walk or stand straight and I can't even take something liquid. So what can I do to cure this disease.

By anon299928 — On Oct 27, 2012

Cary, I too have had that issue. I told my doctor and he said that the two couldn't be related. But every time I've awakened with a back ache I usually have stomach issues, so they must be related.

I'm checking sights because my wife and I both have had times where we have stomach issues in the middle of the night so severe that we've almost passed out OR vomited. I'm thinking these may have been some type of food poisoning. -Joel from Texas

By michmill68 — On Jun 03, 2010

Did you know that dogs and cats get stomach cramps too? Most of the causes are being fed table foods or sweet snacks, eating garbage, eating spoiled food or dead animals, and toxic substances such as pesticides or household detergents/chemicals. The best treatment is withholding food for 24 hours and then feeding them a bland diet of cooked rice and chicken and plenty of water.

By mom0103 — On Jun 03, 2010

I have found that there are many things that can be done to prevent stomach cramps caused by gas. Eat and drink slowly. Chew food well. Do not overstuff yourself. Non-caffeinated drinks are best. Don't eat when upset. Take it easy on cold drinks. Eat a lot of fiber. Take a break before any strenuous activity, but a light walk can be good to "speed things along."

By cary — On Apr 01, 2010

I occasionally get severe cramps in the middle of the night - I though they were backaches at first, but my doctor said he though it was probably gas or indigestion causing cramps that I was just feeling in my back because I was laying down. The only thing that ever helped was walking around for a while, presumably to reposition my internal organs, then using a heating pad.

In fact, I'm a big fan of the heating pad to relieve most (non-serious) abdominal pain. It's great for menstrual cramps, especially.

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