What are stomach spasms?
Spasm is the term for the involuntary contraction or twitching of a muscle. It is also used interchangeably with the word cramps which refers to a sudden very strong contraction of a muscle. The stomach is a muscular sac. Although the muscles in the stomach wall are not under voluntary control it can also go into spasm at times. Stomach spasms are therefore synonymous with stomach cramps, a common symptoms seen in many gastrointestinal diseases.
However, many people also describe the abdomen as the stomach. The abdomen is the entire cavity that lies between the chest (thorax) and pelvis. Abdominal cramps are another common problem and it may not always emanate from the stomach. Similarly it may not be an internal abdominal organ that is the problem but rather the abdominal wall. In other words it is a surface problem. The abdominal wall contains several muscles and these muscles can go into spasm or cramp which may then be referred to as stomach spasms.
Causes of Stomach Spasms
Muscles are the biological components that facilitate movement and allows for changes in sizes of certain organs.
The muscles in the stomach play an important role in churning food with the stomach acid and digestive enzymes. In this way it facilitates chemical digestion. It also helps crush food within the stomach as part of mechanical digestion. In addition stomach contractions help to push food through the digestive tract, specifically from the stomach into the duodenum (first part of the small intestine).
Spasm can arise with strong stimulation for muscle contractions. It can also arise with injury of the muscle of the tissues close to it. Stretching of muscles can also lead to rebound spasm. Most of the causes of stomach spasms involves one or more of these mechanisms associated with a number of different digestive diseases.
Hunger pangs are marked by cramping like pains in the stomach especially when the initial hunger signals are ignored. It may be worse in people who have gastritis or peptic ulcers. Hunger pangs are considered to be a normal type of stomach spasm and it is momentary until food is eaten. Some irritant food and drinks can also trigger stomach spasms.
A number of different infections of the stomach and bowels can lead to spasms and cramping. Infectious gastroenteritis is a common condition mainly caused by viruses but can also arise with bacterial and protozoal infections. Sometimes just the toxins from the microbes can irritate the stomach lining (food poisoning). H.pylori is a specific bacterium that can infect the stomach. It may lead to gastritis and peptic ulcers.
Irritation of the stomach may occur with consuming certain substances. Alcohol for example is an irritant as is many prescription drugs. Inflammation of the stomach is known as gastritis and it is a very common condition. It is mainly associated with H.pylori infection or the excessive use of anti-inflammatory drugs.
Sometimes severe gastritis can lead to erosion of the stomach lining. These open sores are known as ulcers. It is also a common condition and may extend to the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum. Collectively this is known as peptic ulcer disease (PUD). The further irritation of these sores with stomach acid can trigger cramps.
Certain autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can affect the stomach. Crohn’s disease is the type of IBD that may affect any part of the digestive tract, including the stomach. Abdominal cramps is a common symptom. Autoimmune gastritis is another stomach condition where the immune system attacks the stomach tissue.
Toxins that enter the digestive tract can elicit strong muscle contractions. It may cause inflammation of the stomach wall and can also be associated with anti-peristalsis as the digestive tract attempts to get rid of the toxin by vomiting. Toxins may include tainted food, alcohol, overdose on prescription medication as well as poisons such as arsenic.
Physical strain is one of the common reasons for abdominal muscle spasms. These flat sheet muscles are like any muscles elsewhere in the body and have a limit to the extent of strain that it can contend with which is largely dependent on its physical conditioning. Due to its size, these muscles can cause diffuse abdominal pain when several portions go into spasm simultaneously.
Abdominal injuries are not uncommon. The abdominal wall lacks the protection of bones like the chest cavity has the ribcage. Any trauma to the abdomen, be it blunt force trauma like a punch to the abdomen or even penetrating injuries, can cause the abdominal walls to go into spasm. This may stem from a protective mechanism where the abdominal muscles tighten but can go into spasm thereafter.
Signs and Symptoms
Most spasms are painful and this is often the main symptom that is experienced. The pain can vary from a cramping pain, to burning and even sharp or tearing pains. It can be spasmodic where the pain comes and goes every few seconds or minutes. These symptoms may frequently be accompanied by:
- Nausea and sometimes vomiting
- Bleeding in the stool (melena) or in the vomit (hematemesis)
- Sensation of fullness after a few bites of food
- Abdominal distention (sometimes)
- Changes in appetite
When the abdominal wall is involved, there may be signs of injury on the abdomen such as redness, swelling or hematomas. Apart from the pain, there may also be tenderness even with light pressure on the affected area of the abdominal wall.
Treatment of Stomach Spasms
The treatment of stomach spasms depends on the underlying cause. Therefore treatment measures may vary. Often the stomach cramps or abdominal spasms are not directly treated. It eases once the underlying cause is treated and resolves.
- H.pylori infection requires antibiotics as does bacterial gastroenteritis.
- Acid-suppressing drugs and antacids may be used for gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.
- Corticosteroids may be used for inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune gastritis.
- Analgesics (painkillers) may be used for pain relief from the spasms and cramps.
For abdominal wall muscles, simple measures like rest, cold and then heat therapy and gentle massage can help ease the abdominal spasms.