Stomach cramps

Stomach cramps refer to an ache in the abdomen, and can be caused by a variety of factors. They usually pass after a short time, but if the pain does not ease you should contact a doctor.

  • Commonly caused by trapped wind and indigestion
  • Fibre can help alleviate strain on the stomach
  • Various health conditions can cause stomach cramps

The Treated.com online video consultation service is available for you to use, if you would like to speak to one of our UK doctors about stomach cramps online. They are available to consult with between 9am and 5pm, five days a week.

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Possible causes

Stomach cramps are a very common problem that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. They may be triggered by lifestyle and dietary factors, or more serious chronic conditions.

In most cases medical attention isn’t required, as stomach cramps will pass within a short period of time. If symptoms do persist however, it could indicate a problem that requires treatment.

If you experience abdominal pain which starts in the centre, around your navel and moves downwards and to your right and you also have a temperature and feel nauseous, you should seek medical advice urgently.

If appendicitis is the cause, you should contact your GP or your local out of hours service immediately. It’s likely that your appendix will need to be removed in hospital as soon as possible.

Lifestyle factors and stomach cramps

Stomach cramps are usually caused by:

  • eating too quickly 
  • exercising straight after eating
  • eating fatty, spicy or acidic foods 
  • and eating at irregular times of the day (such as very late at night or outside your normal routine).

Excessive alcohol intake and smoking can also upset the stomach and cause discomfort. It’s also possible to get stomach cramp if you don’t drink a sufficient amount of water.

Being overweight is a further risk factor for stomach cramps, because the likelihood of developing associated conditions like heartburn is higher. 

Stomach cramps may also be triggered by sensations of anxiety or nervousness, which can disturb the stomach and result in pain; however, this is often temporary. 

Underlying conditions and stomach cramps

There are a number of health conditions that can cause stomach cramps. In some cases, the severity and degree of pain can be an indication of what the condition is.

For example, if pain is sudden and severe, this can be a sign of appendicitis, where the appendix becomes inflamed. Appendicitis requires immediate medical attention. A stomach ulcer that has started to bleed through the lining of the stomach can also cause severe acute pain. 

Inflammation of the gallbladder, the presence of kidney stones and diverticulitis (inflammation of small stretch pockets in the bowel) are further examples of conditions that can lead to severe, short-term stomach cramps.

In less severe, but more gradual and persistent cases, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that may be the cause of stomach cramps. Bloating, constipation and diarrhoea occur frequently with IBS and can all lead to discomfort in the stomach. Coeliac disease may also present similar symptoms.

Other, less common conditions that are similar to IBS in terms of symptoms are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are types of inflammatory bowel disease. Urinary tract infections may also cause stomach cramps, and acid reflux can cause pain in the stomach. 

Diagnosing the cause of stomach cramps

If your stomach cramps do not get better after a few days, you should contact a doctor. If the pain is sudden and severe, seek urgent medical attention at a hospital. 

In less severe cases, in order for a clinician to diagnose the cause of your stomach cramps, they will ask questions about your diet and general patient history.

A doctor will also want to know more about the nature of the stomach cramps, such as how long they have lasted, and the type of pain that is present. If they aren’t able to diagnose the pain via a physical examination and consultation, further tests may be necessary. Blood tests, x-rays and endoscopies (a small camera being inserted down the throat) can all help to reveal potential problems with the stomach.

If you are concerned about stomach cramps, and your symptoms have not improved over several days, it’s recommended that you contact a doctor. You can do this online using our video consultation service, which is available between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. Our clinicians are GMC-registered and can help diagnose the cause of stomach cramps, as well as provide advice and information on treatment.

Page last reviewed:  02/06/2020
Types of Treatment

You should contact a doctor if you have stomach cramps that last for more than a few days.

Treatment for stomach cramps will vary significantly depending on what the cause of the pain is, but there are some simple measures that you can take that may reduce it.

What you can do to help stomach cramps

If your stomach cramps are not associated with another health condition, and are a result of indigestion or another lifestyle-related factor, there are many self-help measures you can try to help alleviate symptoms.

Some people find that drinks, such as lemon and ginger tea, or chamomile, can help soothe the stomach. Making changes to your diet may also help. Certain foods may be easier on the stomach as they do not contain salts or spices, such as rice, bananas and dry toast. Conversely, fatty foods and spicy foods should be avoided.

Eating a balanced diet with sufficient fibre can help the digestive process, and reduce your chances of getting stomach cramps. Limiting your alcohol consumption and not smoking may also help if you are experiencing pain.

How are stomach cramps treated?

In most cases, stomach cramps can be resolved by avoiding food or drink that may exacerbate them.

However, if treatment is needed, there are a variety of medications that can be prescribed depending on the cause of the cramps. For example, acid-suppressing medication may be prescribed for a stomach ulcer, and pain caused by too much gas in the stomach can be relieved by using medications such as Mylanta.

If stomach cramps are indicative of a more serious condition, a doctor will look to treat it. In the case of a bacterial infection, this may involve a course of antibiotics (some urinary tract infections can cause stomach cramps). If a condition such as IBS or Coeliac disease is causing cramps, these will need to be managed via dietary adjustments and monitoring symptoms. Long term chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis will need to be managed with ongoing medication. 

If you are concerned about your stomach cramps and would like some advice, our UK GPhC-registered doctors are available to speak to through our online video consultation service. You can make an appointment to consult with them between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Page last reviewed:  02/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to have a stomach cramp for?

Because there are a variety of causes of stomach cramps, it’s difficult to offer a definitive answer.

Generally, if pain is caused by a disruption of normal eating habits, eating spicy food or drinking a lot of alcohol, then it may only last for a few hours or a day or two. Cramps caused by food poisoning or an infection can last for several days.

There are some conditions that will cause chronic stomach pain that may be dull and constant, or come on in waves of severe pain. People may experience cramping in the stomach for a few days consecutively, or intermittently, over a much longer period, if they have IBS or a long- term condition.

Are stomach cramps serious?

It depends on the cause. There are many reasons as to why stomach cramps may occur. Some triggers are not serious and the pain will quickly subside. However, if the pain is particularly sharp and sudden, this could be an indication of a life-threatening condition such as appendicitis, which requires urgent hospital admission.

Conditions that cause more gradual, longer lasting symptoms will also need to be assessed by a doctor, and treatment issued where appropriate.

Can I get treatment for stomach cramps?

If stomach cramps are not caused by an underlying condition, then simple self-care measures such as avoiding spicy foods, eating a balanced diet, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking can help.

In cases which are triggered by an underlying medical condition, there are various medications that can be prescribed depending on what the condition is. Inflammatory bowel disease is usually managed through a combination of different medicines, and heartburn can be treated with antacids and proton pump inhibitors.

Operations may be conducted for causes such as appendicitis and kidney stones, but may not always be necessary. These circumstances do however require hospital admission (urgent admission, in the case of appendicitis).

How can I prevent stomach cramps?

Stomach cramps can be prevented by eating a balanced diet that contains sufficient fibre to ease digestion. Limiting your consumption of fatty and spicy foods can also help to prevent stomach cramps, as can staying within lower risk alcohol guidelines (less than 14 units per week), not smoking, and eating at regular times.

Can I speak to a doctor about stomach cramps online?

Yes. Should you wish to consult a doctor about your stomach cramps online, you can do so by using our video consultation service. One of our UK GMC-registered clinicians can speak to you between 9am and 5pm, once you have booked an appointment, and they can provide advice on managing symptoms and treatment where required.

Page last reviewed:  02/06/2020

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