Medical Experts Explain What Causes Belly Bloat

Updated 01/28/18
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In my opinion, stomach pain beats out all other forms of discomfort as the absolute worst. Nausea, bloating, cramping, mysterious stabbing pains in your abdomen—I’d take a bad headache or a broken leg over any of it. (Anyone else agree?)

What can feel just as bad as the physical pain itself is wondering what on earth is causing it. We don’t all have the time or energy to rush to the doctor’s office the moment we realise our stomach hurts. At the same time, I’ve had more than one experience of frantically googling “why does my stomach hurt,” wanting a straight answer but being met with every possibility from food poisoning to colon cancer. Not helpful.

All of this inspired me to get in touch with medical professionals to put together a straightforward list of the most common stomach pain causes they see in their practice. Keep in mind that it’s still crucial to see your physician for a correct diagnosis, but in the meantime, read on to discover the five most likely reasons your stomach hurts, according to doctors. 

1. Indigestion and acid reflux

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What it is: This might not be a very glamorous cause of stomach pain, but it’s a likely one. “Indigestion normally occurs after a meal and is associated with the type of meal or the way in which we eat it,” says board-certified internist Dana Corriel, MD. Common culprits include spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol, and too-fast eating. Similarly, acid reflux happens during or after a meal when “stomach contents re-enter the esophagus, along with acid the stomach has produced,” says Corriel.

How to treat it: Indigestion can be sidestepped by “taking taking smaller bites, taking longer to chew on each bite, eating slower in general, and avoiding foods that make you feel this way, depending on your trigger,” Corriel says. Tips for acid reflux include “eating healthy meals and avoiding fatty or acidic foods, smoking and alcohol cessation, wearing loose-fitting clothing, avoiding meals at least two hours before bedtime, and elevating the head of bed if symptoms occur at night.” Prescription and over-the-counter antacids can also help, depending on severity and your personal doctor’s recommendations.

2. Food sensitivities

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What it is: It’s more common than we realise for people to develop different food sensitives over time, whether that be to lactose, gluten, or something else. “Oftentimes food sensitivities can be subtle and overlooked,” says functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner Jenn Culver. “Eating these foods can cause intestinal inflammation and stomach upset.”

How to treat it: If you suspect that this might be the cause of your stomach pain, try requesting a food sensitivities test from your medical professional, says Culver, “or do some food journaling and use process of elimination to figure out what foods you might be sensitive to.”

3. IBS

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What it is: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic, long-term condition affecting the colon and results in stomach pain, bloating, cramping, and other less-than-pretty bathroom-related symptoms. The disorder tends to be more common among women. “It is unclear why IBS occurs,” says Corriel, “but stress is believed to play a large role in it.”

How to treat it: Treating IBS involves a myriad of stress-reducing lifestyle changes such as “eating a balanced diet, adopting a regular exercise regimen, and engaging in relaxation activities, such as meditation, yoga, or counseling,” says Corriel. For those who aren’t able to minimise their stress through diet and lifestyle, prescription medication is also an option.

4. Gastritis

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What it is: A common condition, gastritis is caused by inflammation of your stomach lining, resulting in symptoms like pain and bloating whenever you eat. “Causes include using large quantities of certain pain relievers, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and stress,” says Corriel.

How to treat it: Here’s another one that can primarily be treated with lifestyle and dietary changes, such as diminishing stress and avoiding smoking and alcohol.

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5. Ulcers

What it is: An ulcer is a painful sore in your abdomen that typically comes in two varieties—“peptic (located in the stomach) and duodenal (located in the first segment of your small intestine),” says Corriel.

How to fix it: Of all the conditions listed here, it’s especially important that you see a doctor if you think you might have an ulcer, as the cause is a bacteria called helicobacter pylori, which requires “eradication and [is] usually treated by a cocktail of prescribed medications,” says Corriel.

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