With most of the digestive organs lying within the abdominal cavity, it is not unexpected for abdominal pain to occur after eating when there is a disease within the digestive tract. Depending on the location of the pain, how soon it occurs after eating and other signs and symptoms, the cause can be isolated to a certain part of the digestive tract. This should then be confirmed with diagnostic tests to identify the exact cause of abodminal pain after eating.
Why does pain occur after eating?
Pain is a signal that an area of the body is undergoing tissue damage. The problem area may be irritated, inflamed or even have open wounds. Sometimes there may be abnormal stretching, tension or excessive pressure which could also elicit pain. Although the pain may be present and persist even without eating, the process of movement within the gut, digestion and absorption may trigger or exacerbate the pain. This can occur for several reasons.
Firstly the presence of food itself or the substances within it may be the trigger or exacerbating factor. For example, foods that are spicy or alcoholic beverages may make contact with the exposed tissue of the open sores in conditions like peptic ulcers and injure the tissue even further. However, it is not only harsh substances with specific foods that are responsible for pain after eating.
The process of eating stimulates the digestive processes. This starts even before the first bite of food enters the mouth. Just the sight and smell of foods may increase digestive activity. As a result, various parts of the digestive tract increase the secretion of digestive enzymes. These are strong chemicals that breakdown food but can also digest the body’s own tissue if protective mechanisms are malfunctioning.
Lastly, the changes that occur within the wall of the gut may also contribute to pain. Foods and fluids causes stretching of the gut wall and this can result in pain, depending on the underlying problem. Furthermore the tiny muscles in the gut wall contract and relax constantly after eating to push along the food for digestion and absorption of nutrients. This is known as gut motility and the movement can also elicit pain.
Read more on stomach pain after eating.
Other Symptoms with Pain After Eating
Abdominal pain after eating may occur independently with no other symptoms. This can make it difficult to identify the exact cause, especially if the pain is diffuse and not localized to one region. However, there are usually other accompanying signs and symptoms that can assist in diagnosing the problem area. These other signs and symptoms may include:
- Nausea with or without vomiting
- Sensation of fullness (bloating)
- Abdominal distension
- Excessive belching
- Loud and excessive abdominal sounds (borborygmi)
- Loss of appetite
Location of the Pain
The first part of the digestive tract, namely the mouth, throat and esophagus (food pipe), do not lie in the abdominal cavity. The abdominal section of the digestive tract starts with the stomach in the upper left region of the abdomen, tucked under the left ribcage. It continues to the small intestine and the large intestine with the descending colon tapering into the pelvic cavity. The tract ends with the sigmoid colon and rectum which lie in the pelvis.
However, it is important to note that the digestive tract may not be the only abdominal organ that is affected with eating. Neighboring organs may also contribute to digestion and absorption as well as be impinged upon by the activity within the digestive tract. Pain in these areas may be arising from the organs mentioned below:
- Upper left abdomen: stomach or spleen
- Upper middle abdomen: stomach, duodenum (small intestine), gallbladder or pancreas
- Upper right abdomen: liver and gallbladder
- Central abdomen: small intestine and transverse colon
- Mid to lower right abdomen (towards sides): appendix and ascending colon
- Mid to lower left abdomen (towards sides): descending colon
Causes of Abodminal Pain After Eating
There are many different digestive and abdominal conditions that can lead to abdominal pain after eating. Some of the more common causes have been discussed below. However, it is important to note that sometimes abdominal pain after eating may not be clearly linked to a specific condition and may occur for reasons that cannot be conclusively tied to the digestive process.
Abdominal pain that starts almost immediately after eating, especially if it is located in the upper abdomen and more towards the left side, is most likely due to stomach conditions. Gastritis, stomach ulcers and a hiatal hernia are some of the more common causes of upper left abdominal pain after eating. It may persist for hours until the stomach gradully empties all of its contents.
Read more on stomach hurts after eating.
The duodenum (first part of the small intestine) continues from the stomach and constantly receives small amounts of partially digest food (gastric chyme) from the stomach. Therefore upper middle abdominal pain that follows immediately after and a short while after eating may be due to duodenal problems.
Common conditions of the duodenum include duodenitis and duodenal ulcers, which are more common than stomach ulcers. Pain lower down the small intestine occurs minutes to hours after eating and can be due to conditions like enteritis and small intestine obstruction.
The gallbladder empties bile into the bile duct which is then released into the duodenum. The bile helps emulsify fats to assist with fat digestion. Upper abdominal pain (either middle or slightly to th right) that arises with eating fatty meals in particular may be due to a gallbladder condition. Gallstones and gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis) are the most common conditions with episodes of pain starting after meals and lasting for a few hours.
The pancreas secretes several digestive enzymes into the duodenum to assist with chemical digestion. Pain in the upper middle abdomen that occurs a short while after eating may be due to pancreatic conditions like acute pancreatitis, which may sometimes be caused by gallstones. The pain in acute pancreatitis is typically is sharp and severe, and tends to radiate to the back.
Abdominal pain after eating is not usually associated with the large intestine as digested food can take as long as 72 hours to reach the large intestine. However, reflexes initiated in the upper digestive tract can increase activity in the large intestine. The most significant are the gastrocolic and duodenocolic reflexes where colon activity increases with stretching of the stomach or duodenum, respectively. Pain in conditions like appendicitis, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may therefore be triggered or exacerbated after eating.