When Should You Worry About Abdominal Pain?

Abdominal pain can be caused by any number of things and is hard to diagnose sometimes. Read on to learn about the different types.

Women holds stomach in pain while sitting on couch.

Abdominal pain does not always mean constipation or menstrual cramp. There are times when your stomach area feels like it’s in knots. Perhaps, you experience a stabbing pain in your upper right quadrant. The truth is, abdominal pain can sometimes be a term so broad it necessitates a further examination to narrow down the underlying issue.

The abdomen is essentially the portion of our torso from below the chest to the groin, where many of our vital organs reside. This means abdominal pain could be due to an issue with these organs. Moreover, abdominal pain can sometimes originate from issues beyond the abdomen. Different types of pain can feel different in specific ways.

The Four General Types of Abdominal Pain

Illustration showing the human abdomen and its different parts
The abdomen comprises different sections corresponding to organs, muscles, and tissues.

Some illnesses like food poisoning cause generalised pain, meaning you feel the pain in over half of your abdomen, while others are localised to a particular site, like appendicitis. The pain could also be constant and crampy, as is the case with menstrual cramps, or colicky (coming in waves), such as that caused by gallstones or kidney stones. With the abdomen covering such a large area with various organs, physicians would begin an evaluation by asking you to indicate where you feel the pain. 

Upper left quadrant 

While we usually say “stomach” to refer to the general central front area of the abdomen, the actual organ is, in fact, in the upper left quadrant, right below the heart and your left lung. The organs located in the upper left quadrant are your left kidney, pancreas, and spleen.

Common ailments that cause abdominal pain in this area include gastritis and other digestive issues that are commonly known. However, pain here could also be caused by inflamed or infected organs, such as pancreatitis, kidney stones or infection, and bile reflux. 

More serious illnesses include pancreatic cancer and stomach cancer. Note that pain you feel in this area could also be referred pain from above. It also involves serious illnesses such as a developing heart attack, angina, pericarditis, pneumonia, or pulmonary embolism. 

Upper right quadrant

A man touching his upper right quadrant with both hands
Gallbladder problems are usually the common cause of abdominal pain felt in the upper right area.

On the other side, in the upper right quadrant, are the liver, right kidney, gallbladder, and bile duct. Pain specific to this area could be due to some issues with the liver, such as hepatitis, or the gallbladder like gallstones and cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation). Issues in the right kidney could also present as pain in this area.

More serious illnesses could be due to cancer. What makes it even more difficult is that cancer pain is sometimes less prevalent than pain due to the more common and less harmful ailments like menstrual cramps or gas. If you experience any unusual pain, be sure to consult your doctor. 

Lower Abdomen 

We now descend to the lower abdomen, where our lower digestive tract, lower urinary tract, and reproductive organs reside. Gastrointestinal issues that we’re more familiar with and that commonly inflict us are typically confined to this area, such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, large or small bowel obstruction, functional dyspepsia, or a hernia. 

Cancers, such as small intestinal cancer, are also possible in the lower abdomen. For females, the reproductive organs are located in the lower abdomen. Hence, the other most common causes of abdominal pain involve the uterus and the ovaries, such as period cramps, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, or an ectopic pregnancy. The uterus and ovaries have the possibility of becoming cancerous, though pain is not always a symptom. 

Lower Left and Right Quadrants 

Pain specific to the left or right side and further below can be traced back to the section at the end of the large intestine, most often involving the colon or the appendix. Pain on the left side could be due to diverticulitis of the colon, which is when the bulges in the colon become infected. 

Meanwhile, pain on the right side is most often caused by an infected or ruptured appendix or appendicitis. While treatable, appendix pain usually sends patients writhing in pain to the emergency room. 

TCM Treatments for Abdominal Pain

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), abdominal pain refers to pain that results from conditions involving some imbalance in the spleen or stomach organ systems as understood in the TCM framework.

“From the TCM perspective, there are many ways to strengthen the Spleen and stomach. Chinese medicine treatment, hands-on body manipulation, and health conditioning can help restore our stomach condition,” ensures TCM Physician Ignatius Ooi. Acupressure points that you can try to relieve abdominal pain include: 

  • Zu san li (ST36, 足三里) 
  • Nei guan (PC6, 内关) 
  • Gong sun (SP4, 公孙) 

If the pain persists, it’s best to check with your medical doctor. 

TCM herbal medicine for abdominal pain can also work well. “Common traditional Chinese medicines used to regulate the Spleen and stomach include ginseng (ren shen, 人参), codonopsis (dang shen, 党参), Chinese yam (huai shan, 淮山), Atractylodis rhizoma (bai zhu, 白术), poria (fu ling, 茯苓), ginger (sheng jiang, 生姜), and jujube (da zao, 大枣). TCM health supplements available in the market from trustworthy brands that contain these ingredients can help strengthen the Spleen and stomach,” Physician Ooi further shares.

Many studies have already shown the efficacy of TCM formulations for different types of abdominal pain. For example, ingredients like Atractylodis (common in China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand) have mechanisms that make them effective in helping with conditions like indigestion, gastritis, bacterial infection, and other abdominal related ailments that stem from a Spleen or stomach Deficiency or imbalance.

Tips to Prevent Abdominal Pain 

In addition to these physiological modalities, TCM promotes health conditioning to ensure a healthy body that can stave off diseases that lead to abdominal pain.

Heed the following advice from Physician Ooi:  

  • Avoid excessive emotional stimulation such as joy, anger, worrying, overthinking, sadness, fear, and shock 
  • Maintain a peaceful state of mind and a cheerful spirit 
  • Change unhealthy living habits, develop regular work and rest time, avoid overworking or staying up late 
  • Eat light meals, be mindful of the acid-alkali balance of food, and have regular meals in moderate portions 
  • Avoid overly cold, hot, raw, or hard food. Don’t eat too much deep-fried, smoked, marinated or pickled, and spicy food. Chew carefully 
  • Stimulating drinks such as strong tea, carbonated beverages, and liquor can also lead to abdominal pain.  
  • Ensure a moderate amount of exercise and be mindful of work-life balance 

Abdominal pain could be due to any number of conditions, both mild and serious. While serious illnesses must be evaluated by a qualified medical professional, it’s important to understand the types and location of your pain so that you can describe it clearly to your doctor. Fortunately, alternative medicine like TCM can treat many common ailments that lead to abdominal pain.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Abdominal Pain.  [Accessed 18 July 2022]. 
  2. Mount Sinai Health Library. Abdominal Pain.  [Accessed 18 July 2022]. 
  3. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2021. Atractylodis Rhizoma: A review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry, pharmacology, toxicology and quality control. [Accessed 18 July 2022]. 
  4. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2021. Chinese Herbal Medicine for Functional Abdominal Pain Syndrome: From Clinical Findings to Basic Understandings.  [Accessed 18 July 2022]. 

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