Chronic abdominal pain can be anything from an annoying distraction to a debilitating issue. But putting your finger on why your stomach always hurts can be challenging. The thing that makes diagnosing the cause of abdominal pain so complicated is, well, basic anatomy. Pretty much any and every organ system in the body can play a part in making you feel sick, which means, if it's something that's really bothering you, you should make an appointment with a doctor. But before your appointment, it's a good idea to educate yourself about your symptoms.
Think about the diagram of the human body. Your digestive system is squished in your abdomen with your kidneys, liver, gallbladder, spleen, appendix, pancreas, and, if you're a woman, your reproductive organs. And inflammation anywhere can lead to inflammation everywhere. Some abdominal pain is even caused by problems in other parts of the body — like the thyroid or the pituitary gland.
You would think that pain after eating would suggest a problem in your digestive system, but even that can't be a smoking gun, diagnostically speaking. Eating can put pressure on organs outside of your digestive system — not to mention that your kidneys and liver both play integral roles in processing the food and beverages that you consume every day. And then there's the all-important role of stress and anxiety.
So what are some hints that you can take to the doctor to pinpoint the source of your abdominal pain? Let's check out some of the more common clues.
1. Food allergies and intolerances
If you find yourself experiencing specifically digestive upset like constipation, diarrhea, or unusual amounts of gas after eating the same kind of food time and time again, you might have an intolerance to the food itself due to the chemistry inside of your gut. People who suffer from Celiac Disease aren't equipped with the enzyme necessary to break down gluten, the protein found in wheat and other grains. People who are lactose intolerant are deficient in the enzyme necessary to break down lactose. If you think you may be suffering from one of these conditions, ask your doctor to confirm whether or not you should cut the offending protein out of your diet.
Endometriosis is a condition that, as you might already know, only affects women. The problem arises when the endometrium, which is what you shed each time you menstruate, grows outside of the uterus — usually on the outsides of your ovaries and intestines. The problem is that the endometrium both inside and outside of the uterus behaves as it normally would during your monthly cycle, but only the endometrium inside of the uterus can exit the body. This, as you might imagine, causes extreme lower abdominal pain and can lead to fertility problems and higher rates of ovarian cancer down the line. Your doctor can diagnose endometriosis with a pelvic exam and/or ultrasound, and treatments are available, which vary based on the severity of the case.
3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is also mostly seen in women. Symptoms include sudden chronic issues with bowel movements, be they too frequent or not frequent enough, mucous in stools, and gas and bloating. Treatment for IBS is mostly dietary, with doctors advising people with this condition to avoid caffeine, alcohol, foods that promote bloating like beans and broccoli, and to increase fiber intake. Exercise is also recommended to alleviate symptoms of IBS.
Stress triggers your body's fight or flight system, which in turn sends adrenaline flooding through your veins. Adrenaline speeds up the old digestive tract in the same way as a cup of coffee would on an empty stomach, which can cause discomfort and even diarrhea. If you're feeling a lot of stress and anxiety, that could certainly be the culprit for your aching stomach.
5. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Some people suffer from a condition that causes excess acid in the stomach to work against the flow of gravity and take a U-turn up the esophagus. This can cause inflammation which leads to the kind of pain we associate with heartburn, cough and asthma, and even excess mucous in the sinuses. GERD should be treated by dietary changes — avoiding things like this delicious place of spaghetti marinara — and over-the-counter medicines that limit acid production in the stomach. Ask your doctor what treatments are right for you.
6. Thyroid problems
Your thyroid, which lives all the way up in your neck, regulates body functions in multiple organ systems. It can also cause your digestive system to get all sorts of messed up. An overactive thyroid will cause frequent, loose stools, anxiety, and abnormal weight loss. An under-active thyroid can cause lethargy, constipation, and unexplained weight gain. If your mood, weight, and digestive regularity have all been thrown out of their normal routines, ask your doctor if you could possibly be experiencing a problem with your thyroid.
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