A host of stomach conditions can cause pain and less commonly cramps as well. However, identifying pain in the stomach region as arising specifically from the stomach is often difficult without considering a person’s medical history, other symptoms and results of different tests. Bad stomach pain or cramping is distressing and at times even be debilitating, affecting a person’s daily functioning and even level of nutrition in some cases. Understanding the possible causes of bad stomach pains or bad stomach cramps and identifying other features which may provide a better indication of the cause is therefore imperative for rapid and effective treatment.
What is a bad stomach?
The term ‘bad stomach‘ is not a specific diagnosis. It is a common term used to describe gastrointestinal symptoms as well as pain or cramps arising in the left upper quadrant of the abdomen. This includes pain under the left ribcage as most of the stomach is tucked under the lower part of the left ribcage. The stomach sits at the upper left side of the abdominal cavity surrounded by many organs and structures – both within the abdominal and thoracic cavity. Therefore a host of non-gastric causes may be responsible for what is commonly termed as a bad stomach. Similarly the stomach is just one section of the alimentary tract and conditions of neighboring parts, namely the esophagus and duodenum, may also be mistaken for a bad stomach.
Bad Stomach Symptoms
A host of symptoms can be attributed to a ‘bad stomach‘. This includes :
- Bloated feeling which is a sensation of fullness
- Nausea which is at times followed by vomiting
- Excessive belching or belches with an unusually foul odor
- Loud stomach noises (borborygmi)
- Stomach pain
- Stomach cramps
Most of these symptoms worsen or ease after eating food or when hungry. Certain foods may be identified as possible trigger factors for the symptoms but are usually not the cause.
Bad Stomach Pains
Pain is a distinct sensation that is clearly identifiable to a person although the nature of the pain may vary. It is a distressing symptom that usually serves as a warning signal of tissue damage. Stomach pain may vary intensity but very severe stomach pains, often described as bad stomach pains, occurs due to a combination of the causative factor injuring the stomach wall coupled with the effect of the highly corrosive stomach acid making contact with the wall.
Normally the stomach wall is lined with a mucus barrier produced by the mucus-producing cells lining the stomach. However, any injury to the stomach wall affects mucus secretion. The injury itself elicits inflammation and pain. As the mucus barrier wears out at the affected site the stomach acid can then make contact with the stomach wall. In addition, stomach acid production is increased with certain diseases thereby exacerbating the problem.
Bad stomach pains may vary from a dull gnawing ache, to a burning sensation or sharp stabbing pains. Although the nature of pain cannot conclusively indicate the cause, more common causes like gastritis and stomach ulcers present with a dull ache or burning pain. More serious causes like a perforated ulcer, Crohn’s disease, late stages of stomach cancer and severe gastric outlet obstruction can cause sharp stabbing pains.
Bad Stomach Cramps
Stomach cramps are non-specific and the term may be used to refer to various different sensations that are distinguishable from pain. The stomach is a muscular hollow organ. These muscle activity breaks down food into smaller particles as a part of mechanical digestion. It also helps churn food in the stomach with enzymes and the acid – chemical digestion. Stomach cramping is due to abnormally strong contractions of the stomach muscles. Most conditions that can eventually progress to stomach pain may initially be present as milder discomfort that is described as stomach cramps although it may not always be due to actual muscle cramping.
This is more likely seen with conditions like gastroenteritis, distention of the stomach with over-eating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gas build up in the stomach particularly with the consumption of carbonated drinks and anxiety (nervous stomach). The term ‘stomach cramps’ may also be used loosely to describe a host of other uncomfortable sensations in the stomach region that is not actual pain.
Causes of a Bad Stomach
There are several stomach conditions that may present with pains, cramps and/or other symptoms described above.
- Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach wall. The pain is typically a dull ache or a burning pain at most. In chronic cases there are long periods of no symptoms followed by acute phases with intense symptoms including nausea, sometimes vomiting and bloating.
- Stomach ulcers are open sores in the stomach lining. It may follow gastritis and tends to present with more severe burning pain. Characteristic features include stomach pain that is worse at night and with an empty stomach. Antacids usually relieve the pain.
- Perforated ulcers is where an open hole forms in the stomach wall. Stomach perforation can also occur for other reasons. The stomach contents spill out into the abdominal cavity causing intense pain as a result of peritonitis. There is also significant abdominal distention.
- Gastroenteritis is acute inflammation of the stomach and intestinal wall as a result of an infection – usually viral but also often bacterial in nature. It is commonly referred to as the stomach flu. Intense nausea and vomiting are characteristic symptoms along with stomach cramps. Diarrhea usually sets in shortly thereafter and sometimes a person may have a fever.
- Food poisoning is a result of bacterial toxins in contaminated food irritating the stomach. The nausea and vomiting are usually intense and in severe cases there may also be diarrhea. Usually a fever is not present. Stomach cramps are intense as the stomach attempts to expel the toxins.
- Stomach cancer is a malignant growth of the stomach tissue. There are usually no symptoms in the early stages. Eventually nausea, vomiting, indigestion and a bloating sensation develops over time along with stomach pain.
- Gastric outlet obstruction is any blockage of the stomach contents from exiting the stomach. It may be due to any number of conditions including stomach polyps and cancer.
- Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory condition of the gut wall. It is one type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Although the colon is the most commonly affected site in IBD, sometimes other parts of the gut including the stomach may be affected in Crohn’s disease.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional bowel disorder that is associated with abnormal gut motility. Although most symptoms are associated with the lower bowels, it can also affect the stomach. Abnormally rapid and forceful contractions may lead to a cramping sensation particularly in diarrhea-predominant IBS.
Stomach Ache in Pregnancy
Stomach irritation is common in pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, where morning sickness and adapting to the changes associated with pregnancy can affect many organs. However, stomach ache in pregnancy should not be taken lightly as there are a number of obstetric causes of abdominal pain that could jeopardize the fetus or even the mother’s life. These conditions are discussed under abdominal pain in pregnancy.
Pica, which is the craving for indigestible substances, is not uncommon in pregnancy. Ingesting these substances and overeating may cause a stomach ache. The pregnant uterus which is constantly expanding due to the growing fetus can also press upon abdominal structures and thereby apply pressure to the stomach. This may cause a stomach ache when lying flat, which may be relieved by lying on the side.