What is Gastric Pain?
Gastric pain is a term used to describe a pain in the middle of the upper abdomen. Even though ‘gastric’ means ‘of the stomach’, gastric pain may also originate from other areas such as the gallbladder, pancreas and small intestine.
A symptom rather than a condition in itself, gastric pain may point to a number of medical conditions that are usually mild, but can be moderate or severe as well. Many Singaporeans refer to gastric pain or discomfort simply as ‘gastric’.
What Causes Gastric Pain?
There can be many different causes for gastric pain, which range from mild to severe. Here are some common (and not so common) causes for gastric pain:
Indigestion is a common condition that most people experience at least a few times in their life. It is characterised by a full, uncomfortable sensation in the upper abdomen shortly after eating, and may be accompanied by a burning sensation in the stomach or esophagus (heartburn) due to the acid build up in the stomach. This may be felt as gastric pain.
Indigestion can result from overeating or eating too fast, or by certain trigger foods — spicy, greasy, and fatty foods also increase the risk of indigestion. You may experience indigestion if you exercise just after a heavy meal or lie down too soon after eating, as these activities make it harder for your body to digest food and increases your risk for abdominal discomfort. The side effects of some medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories may also include indigestion.
Though most cases of indigestion are a one-off incidence, recurring indigestion may be a sign of underlying issues. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — a digestive disorder that occurs when acidic stomach fluids back up from the stomach into the esophagus — and stomach ulcers may cause indigestion and gastric pain.
If your indigestion is recurring and is accompanied by severe gastric pain and/or weight loss, do speak to your doctor in order to get a proper diagnosis and to manage the condition.
Gas is a natural occurrence as part of the digestive process. Gas build up can cause a feeling of “bloating” that may be accompanied by mild pain and swelling of the abdomen. You might encounter increased gas build up or flatulence after eating certain foods such as beans, garlic, cauliflower and other high-fibre foods.
This kind of gastric pain usually is felt in waves and is often passing and not a cause for concern. Over-the-counter medications such as Pepto-Bismol and activated charcoal can help to reduce the pain and pressure.
Stomach virus (gastric/stomach flu)
Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which comprises the stomach and intestines. Despite its name, stomach flu is not caused by influenza viruses, and it can affect the small intestines and large intestines as well. Stomach flu is usually caused by viruses, though bacteria and parasites may occasionally be the cause.
A bout of stomach flu usually results in gastric pain, vomiting, weakness and discomfort. This illness usually happens suddenly and is typically short-lived. Most people recover fully with no long-lasting consequences.
The most common complication that is associated with stomach flu is dehydration. See Gastric Pain Complications for more information.
As their name suggests, gallstones are stone-like particles that develop in the gallbladder, which is a small organ located under the liver that stores bile.
They are mainly made of the cholesterol or bilirubin (the waste product of when red blood cells are broken down in the liver) that are components of bile, and can range from as small as grains of sand to golf ball size.
Gallstones may result in symptoms such as gastric pain, vomiting and fatigue. See Gastric Pain Complications for more information.
Liver or pancreas issues
Sometimes, gastric pain occurs as a symptom of problems in the liver or pancreas.
Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) may result in sudden nausea, vomiting, and gastric pain that occurs on the upper right side of the body. Though stomach pain isn’t always a symptom, the same kind of upper right side abdominal pain that might also be felt in the lower right portion of the ribcage is also a potential symptom of liver cancer.
Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, often causes middle-left upper abdominal pain in most people. This may be accompanied by indigestion, nausea and bloating. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis, treatment and management will differ fo each of the different pancreatic or liver issues.
A bowel obstruction occurs when inflamed intestinal wall, fibrous scar tissues or tumors create a blockage that obstructs the intestinal pathway and disrupts the passage for digestive waste.
A bowel obstruction is typically debilitating and very painful, and may be accompanied by vomiting, intense gastric pain, abdominal swelling and constipation. It’s considered a medical emergency and medical intervention should be done immediately if bowel obstruction is suspected.
Determining the Cause of Gastric Pain
Due to the wide variety of conditions that may cause gastric pain, determining the exact cause of one’s gastric pain can be a complex process that requires various methods of investigation.
Your doctor will usually do a general examination of your current diet and lifestyle to figure out if your gastric pain is caused by one of the milder conditions like an isolated case of indigestion or flatulence.
If the doctor suspects that the cause of your stomach pain could be something more serious, they may opt for more invasive diagnosis methods such as gastroscopies and colonoscopies, or CT scans to find the best treatment for you.
Gastric Pain Complications
Though most cases of gastric pain are mild and are linked to mild conditions, there are times when gastric pain is an indicator of a more severe medical issue, which if left untreated, could lead to dangerous complications.
Dehydration is the most likely complication of stomach flu. If symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting are persistent and last for more than a few days, your body loses fluids and electrolytes that are vital for its proper functions.
Symptoms of dehydration may include:
- Feeling extreme thirst
- dark-colored urine with less volume than usual
- sunken eyes or cheeks
- light-headedness or fainting
Dehydration from stomach flu is especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals. If left untreated, dehydration can lead to organ damage, shock, coma, and even death.
Complications from gallstones occur when they cause a blockage in the gallbladder, which may lead to liver and pancreas issues. Gallstones can be passed out naturally by the body (though it’s usually a painful process), but in some cases, they need to be dissolved by medication. In rare cases, surgical removal of the gallbladder might be necessary.
Liver or pancreas issues
If left untreated, inflammation of the liver or pancreas may lead to interfered organ function and in severe cases, even organ failure.
If the pain is due to liver or pancreatic cancer (though it is often not the case), your doctor may prescribe the necessary treatments suitable for you.
A bowel obstruction is considered a medical emergency as there is a risk that the intestinal wall may become infected or perforated.
If you ever suspect that you or a loved one may be suffering from a bowel obstruction, immediately head to the hospital to seek medical intervention and possibly emergency surgery.
Gastric Pain Relief: Remedies For Gastric Pain
If your gastric pain is a result of a mild condition like indigestion, flatulence or stomach flu, you might be able to get better on your own with proper rest and care.
For indigestion and flatulence, taking over-the-counter medications such as digestive enzymes, lactase pills (if the gastric pain is caused by lactose intolerance) and activated charcoal can help relieve the bloating and pain. You can also use a heating bag to relieve some of the cramps.
Drinking plenty of water will generally help with your gastric pain symptoms – and is particularly important if you have the stomach flu, as dehydration is a common complication since your body is at higher risk of losing too much fluid.
During your recovery process, stick to plain easy-to-digest foods in small quantities. Avoid spicy, salty and oily foods that could make your gastric pain worse.
Some good food choices include:
- Lightly seasoned porridge
- Saltine crackers
- Fresh fruit
- Poached or baked meats (chicken, white fish and other lean proteins)
How to Prevent Gastric Pain
If your gastric pain is caused by indigestion and/or flatulence, the best way to avoid future recurrences is to identify the foods that trigger your indigestion. If your indigestion is recurrent, you might be intolerant to a certain type of protein (gluten, lactose etc.).
Seek the opinion of your doctor or an allergist if you suspect that you might be intolerant or allergic to certain foods, and keep a food diary to help identify the trigger foods to avoid.
In order to prevent stomach flu (which is also very contagious), always wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap and water after using the bathroom, changing diapers, as well as before and after handling, preparing and eating food.
When Should I See a Doctor for Gastric Pain?
If home remedies and treatment by your general practitioner doesn’t work, your gastric pain might be caused by more complicated conditions.
The more severe and recurrent cases of gastric pain require a visit to a specialist to diagnose the problem and recommend treatments.
Do seek your doctor’s opinion if you have:
- Persistent changes to bowel movement (eg. black or bloody stools)
- Persistent diarrhoea or vomiting of more than 12 hours, with no improvement
- A fever
- Rapid weight loss
- A weakened immune systems, (young children, elderly persons, persons with auto-immune diseases, cancer patients)
- Gastric pain arising after injury or consumption of medication
- Gastric pain that is extremely intense and debilitating
- A family history of stomach or pancreatic cancer
Considering the points mentioned above, any signal that your body is giving should not be ignored. This is cliché, but yes, prevention is always better than cure.
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- Gastric Pain. Gut Care. Retrieved 16 June 2021, from https://www.gutcare.com.sg/portfolio/gastric-pain/
- When Should You See A Doctor For Gastric Pain? Gut Care. Retrieved 16 June 2021, from https://www.gutcare.com.sg/when-should-you-see-a-doctor-for-your-gastric-pain/
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- Gallstones. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved 20 June 2021, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/7313-gallstones
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