What are abdominal cramps?
Abdominal cramps are the sensation of discomfort due to spasm of muscles within the abdomen. Typically it feels like a dull ache that may be come and go as if a muscle is contracting very forcefully and then relaxes only to contract again. At times this can be painful but often a person will describe it as a cramping pain. Abdominal cramps are also sometimes called stomach cramps when the abdomen is incorrectly referred to as the stomach.
Although abdominal cramps are thought to be muscular in origin, the term is also used to describe various other sensations in the abdomen that may not be clearly labeled as pain. Furthermore it is often assumed that abdominal cramps arise from the bowels only but can involve any part of the gut and may also arise from non-digestive organs. As with any sensation, the exact cause is not always easy to identify without considering other symptoms.
Causes of Abdominal Cramps
Most abdominal cramps are a result of strong muscle contractions. The wall of the gut is laden with tiny muscles that contract and relax in a rhythmic manner. This is known as peristalsis and its function is to push food and wastes through the gut. However, like any muscle it can go into spasm and this may then give rise to abdominal cramps.
There are other muscular organs in the pelvis, like the bladder and uterus in women. Cramps arising from these organs may sometimes be referred to as abdominal cramps. The chest wall also has large sheets of muscles which may at times go into spasm as well.
It is also important to note that abdominal cramps may at times be unrelated to muscle spasms. Instead a person labels it as cramps due to the dull and pulsatile nature of the discomfort.
Abdominal cramps can occur in most digestive conditions although it is more frequent with the following:
- Gastroenteritis: This is usually an infection of the gut marked by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It is usually viral in origin and acute, lasting only for a few days. It is also referred to as food poisoning at times.
- Food intolerance: This occurs when the body is unable to digest or absorb certain nutrients which then leads to excessive gas and diarrhea. It is often seen with consuming milk in people who are lactose intolerant.
- Irritable bowel syndrome: This is a functional bowel disorder where the movement through the bowels are too fast or slow, thereby leading to diarrhea or constipation respectively.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: This is an autoimmune condition whereby the immune system attacks the lining of the bowel wall and causes inflammation. Diarrhea and mucus or blood in the stool are present.
- Gallstones: Hard masses that form from bile may become obstructed in the duct of the gallbladder. This cause episodic pain that can last for hours at a time.
- Pancreatitis: This is a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed due to the activation of the pancreatic enzymes before it exits the pancreas.
- Appendicitis: This is a condition where the appendix becomes inflamed usually due to an obstruction and infection. An abscess may form and the appendix can rupture.
- Trapped gas: This may occur when intestinal gas collects into pockets and becomes trapped within the bowels. It can cause stretching of the bowel wall and spasms.
Dull aches in conditions such as gastritis, peptic ulcer disease, non-ulcer dyspepsia and various other conditions may at times be described as as abdominal cramps.
The flat sheet muscles of the abdominal wall may also go into spasm and therefore give rise to abdominal cramps. This may occur for various reasons, like trauma to the abdomen due to a blow. It can also arise with overworking the abdominal muscles as part of exercise programs. Pregnant women may also experience cramps arising from the abdominal wall as the muscle stretches to accommodate the growing uterus.
Female Reproductive Organs
Although the female reproductive organs are located in the pelvis and perineum, many women may describe sensations from these organs as originating in the abdomen.
- Menstruation: Menstrual cramps are a common and may occur when the uterus contracts to push out the inner lining of the uterus that is shed as part of menstruation.
- Ovulation: Discomfort during ovulation is not uncommon. Most of the time this is not painful but some women may experience it as a mid-cycle cramp.
- Uterine fibroids: These are benign growths in the muscular tissue of the uterus. It may cause menstrual cramps and pain, as well as pelvic pain even when menstruation is not occurring.
- Endometriosis: This is a condition where endometrial tissue grows outside of the uterus and responds to the hormonal changes that occur with menstrual cycle. It is usually a very painful condition.
- Polycycstic ovarian syndrome: In this condition there is a disturbance in the female hormone levels, with raised male hormones and cyst formation in the ovaries. Pain is a common symptom.
- Pregnancy: Apart from abdominal wall cramps with the stretching of the abdominal muscles, pregnant women may also experience round ligament pain.
- Abdominal migraines is a condition that is mainly seen in children. The exact reason for these episodes of abdominal pain is unclear and often resolves on its own.
- Aortic dissection is where a tear forms in the wall of the aorta. Typically this causes a sharp pain within the abdomen when it forms in the abdominal aorta.
- Adhesions are scar tissue that forms around the abdominal organs, especially the bowels, and usually occurs as a consequence of surgery.
- Abdominal hernia is where a portion of the abdominal wall weakens and bulges. It is more likely to be painful when a portion of the bowel gets trapped within it and compressed (strangulated hernia).
- Volvulus is a condition where the bowel may become twisted and this affects movement of food and stool through the bowels. It can also affect the blood supply to the bowels.
The abdominal cavity has many organs from various systems. Therefore abdominal cramps could arise from diseases of these organs, including the kidney, liver and spleen. Read more on abdominal pain.