Should you see a Doctor for that sharp stomach pain?
Other red flags include difficulty walking or having vomiting and/or diarrhea along with the stomach pain, especially if it lasts for more than a couple of days.
…Or at least it can feel that way. And while the symptom might be easy to identify, the cause is usually more ambiguous. “Sharp abdominal pain by itself could mean anything,” says Lea Ann Chen, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at New York University. In fact, the list of possible culprits is virtually endless. Possible causes of sharp stomach pain can run the gamut from everyday annoyances to medical emergencies and from purely physiological causes to emotional conditions.
These potential causes could be anything from acid reflux to food allergies, stress, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), appendicitis, or good ol' menstrual cramps, according to Jacqueline Wolf, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Other causes of sharp stomach pain include food poisoning, infections, colitis, endometriosis, gallstones, stomach ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, gallbladder issues, and liver disease. So, yeah....
Luckily, when you’re experiencing sharp stomach pain, you don’t need to make a diagnosis by yourself; you can leave that to the professionals. The most important thing is to know whether or not to it's time to seek medical care. Here's what you need to know.
Because there are so many potential causes of sharp stomach pain, no one should attempt to diagnose themselves. (Translation: Don’t head down an internet rabbit hole, because it’s likely to make you panic about the worst-case scenario.)
Instead, says Wolf, “The one key thing is to determine whether the pain is something that’s going to require medical attention and treatment, or if it’s something that’s going to be short-lived and you don’t need to be treated.”
“First thing is timing,” she says. “It depends if we’re talking short-term or long-term. If it’s a one-time event that comes and goes or lasts just a couple of days, one needs to track it with menstrual period, foods they ate, and other symptoms in order to determine whether… you need to call your physician. For example, if you’re in the middle of your period, and it occurs once and then goes away after 24 to 48 hours—and it’s not associated with anything else—one would just track it and see if it recurs.”
However, there are several signs that you should seek prompt medical attention.
“Anything associated with a fever, people should call their doctor about. And if it has lasted for several days, that makes me worried versus something that happened once and never came back or only lasted for a few minutes," Chen says. "Chronic, sharp abdominal pain that’s associated with weight loss always makes me worried—it usually means that it’s something that is affecting somebody’s ability to eat. Also, if the pain is severe enough that it’s waking you up out of sleep, that’s another sign that it’s maybe something significant. Certainly anything that’s very severe and prolonged should be evaluated.”
According to Wolf, other red flags include difficulty walking or having vomiting and/or diarrhea along with the stomach pain, especially if it lasts for more than a couple of days.
If you choose to see a doctor, they’ll conduct a physical exam and ask you a series of questions to better understand the cause of your abdominal pain, says Chen.
Your doctor may ask you specific questions such as whether the pain is shooting in a particular direction or staying in one place, whether the pain is constant or intermittent, and if the pain is associated with other symptoms like diarrhea or nausea. In order to help your doctor make the most accurate diagnosis, note if the pain gets better or worse in any specific situations so that you can share this information when asked.
The location of your abdominal pain may also provide some clues as to its source, says Wolf. For example, she says, pain in the right upper quadrant of the stomach may signal gallbladder disease or liver disease, while pain in the left lower quadrant could signify pain that's stemming from an ovary, endometriosis, diverticulitis, inflammation, or inflammatory bowel disease. Pain on the right side of the stomach could signify appendicitis, inflammatory bowel disease, infection, or inflammation.
“Certainly anything that the patient provides in terms of things that may be associated with it is very helpful in figuring out what’s going on,” says Chen. “Because the possibilities are so broad, it’s only after questioning that the doctor has a good idea of what tests to order.”
Because it can be challenging for doctors to diagnose the root cause of sharp stomach pain, it may be worthwhile getting a second opinion, especially if the pain continues following treatment. Be your body's best advocate, and, if you’re not satisfied with a diagnosis or treatment, don’t give up until you’ve found the relief you deserve.
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