hands clenching stomach

—Rebecca H., Northern Illinois University

Stomach pain can be a real, well, pain. We all get it eventually, but the reasons behind it, severity of the pain, and type of stomach pain can vary greatly. What matters is how much the stomach pain is interfering with your life.

Ask yourself:

  • Is the pain making it hard to sleep, concentrate, study, get to class, exercise, or do other normal activities?
  • Is it affecting your eating patterns?
  • Are there associated symptoms such as fever, fatigue, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, weakness, weight loss, or change in the appearance of your stool?
  • Is the pain occasional or constant, mild or intense?
  • What is the quality of the pain: burning, cramping, or stabbing?
  • Is the pain getting worse, staying the same, or getting better?

It’s important to notice these patterns. I would also recommend a face-to-face evaluation with your doctor. Stomach pain is a pretty common complaint with the students I see. When I ask the questions (like the ones above), it helps me focus the exam and testing, and helps narrow things down.

Here are some common diagnoses and how they typically present themselves:

  • Gas and bloating, especially after meals
  • Can cause diarrhea, loud intestinal gurgling, and the feeling that “things aren’t right in my gut”
  • It may follow a vomiting and/or diarrhea illness
  • Sensitivity to lactose may be more intense for periods of weeks or months, then less so
  • Can be triggered by changes in diet or schedule (both the sleep/wake cycle and bathroom use schedule)
  • Symptoms include abdominal discomfort and a sense of lethargy and heaviness
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, also know as IBS, causes crampy abdominal pain and increased frequency of loose stools or constipation, or both
  • Discomfort and a need to evacuate the bowels, though efforts to do so may produce only gas or mucous
  • A chronic gnawing, irritating, but ignorable pain often felt right under the breastbone
  • May be worse with acidic foods (e.g., citrus fruits or tomatoes)
  • Steadily worsening abdominal pain over hours to days
  • May start generalized, but often becomes more focused under the right side of the rib cage
  • Movement typically aggravates this pain

If you’re worried enough to ask, I’d recommend you go for an examination. It will be helpful to you to better understand the pain. Some causes are more serious than others and may improve with understanding and learning to manage the pain.