Sudden, involuntary muscle contractions or spasms produce the stabbing pains commonly referred to as cramps. Almost any muscle can go into a spasm, resulting in cramps.
When cramps are caused by muscle spasms deep inside the body, the causes are not always clear, and in some instances, the pains may mimic those associated with other disorders. This is particularly true of abdominal cramps. Any persistent or severe abdominal pain warrants calling a doctor.
Causes of abdominal cramps
The sudden onset of pain, tenderness, and rigidity in the lower right abdomen suggest possible appendicitis. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, constipation, and fever.
In diverticulosis, small outpouches form along the colon. Sometimes these pouches become impacted and inflamed, a condition called diverticulitis. Symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, constipation, fever, and general malaise.
Endometriosis is characterized by the growth of tissue that normally lines the uterus (the endometrium) elsewhere in the abdominal cavity. In time, the misplaced growths form adhesions that can cause abdominal pain. Symptoms include cramps, especially toward the end of a menstrual period, and pain during intercourse.
Salmonella food poisoning is one of the most common food-related disorders in the United States, with more than 30 million cases reported each year. Acute food poisoning causes abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and possible vomiting.
Severe upper abdominal pain, often radiating to the back or right shoulder, may be caused by a gallstone lodged in the neck of the gallbladder or the common bile duct, which carries bile from the liver and gallbladder to the duodenum, the uppermost segment of the small intestine. Other symptoms may include jaundice, rapid heartbeat, flatulence, and belching.
Symptoms of gastritis include stomach pain accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and a coated tongue. In severe cases, there also may be a rapid heartbeat, excessive thirst, and diarrhea.
Severe abdominal cramps caused by excessive loss of sodium are a major symptom of heat exhaustion. Immediate cooling and replacement of fluid and salt are essential.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Episodes of abdominal cramps, along with diarrhea (sometimes alternating with constipation) are characteristic of irritable bowel syndrome. The disorder usually develops in the late teens or early adulthood, and is exacerbated by stress.
Cramps associated with the menstrual period are among the most common type of abdominal pain. The pain is caused by excessive production of prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances that result in inflammation and pain. Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which block prostaglandins, provides relief in up to 90 percent of cases.
Tapeworms, giardia, and certain other intestinal parasites can cause abdominal pain and cramping. Other symptoms may include diarrhea, fever, weight loss, and anemia.
Traveler's diarrhea, or turista, is characterized by bouts of explosive diarrhea accompanied by abdominal cramps. The disease derives its name from the fact that its most common victims are travelers to foreign countries. Although it is most often associated with travel to warm climates, traveler's diarrhea also occurs among people from tropical countries who travel to temperate zones.
Abdominal cramps accompanied by bloody diarrhea and tenderness in the lower abdomen suggest ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the intestines. The diarrhea often contains blood-streaked mucus, and may alternate with constipation. The lower abdomen may be painful and distended.
Advice about abdominal cramps
- Stress management is an
important aspect of controlling irritable bowel syndrome or other stress-related intestinal disorders. Anyone who has difficulty
coping with stress should
talk to a doctor about more
effective strategies to man
- When traveling, be particularly careful about consuming water and foods that may be contaminated with intestinal parasites, salmonella, giardia or other disease organisms.
- Practice careful food hygiene, and discard any food that looks or smells tainted.
- Eggs and poultry are common sources of salmonella food poisoning. Avoid eating raw or very soft eggs and make sure that all poultry is properly refrigerated and well cooked.
- See a doctor promptly if a severe, persistent, or recurring abdominal pain develops.