You wake up in the middle of the night with stomach cramps, clutch a pillow and curl your body around it. That helps a little and you go back to sleep. But in the morning, the pain is still there. “Ouch, I have a stomachache!” you tell your mom or dad.
That’s when the questions begin: Do you feel like you’re going to throw up? Has it been hard for you to go to the bathroom lately? Did you have diarrhea in the night? Does it hurt anywhere else? Does it hurt so much you can’t stand up? Are you worried about anything at school? Your mom or dad asks all these questions because lots of different things could cause pain in your belly or abdomen.
Keep reading to find out what belly pain is, what causes it, and what you can do to feel better.
All About the Abdomen
When you get a pain in your stomach, it might be an actual problem right in your stomach, but not necessarily. Your abdomen is more than your stomach. It’s more than your intestines. It’s the whole area between your chest and your pelvic (hip) bones.
Inside your abdomen, you have your stomach and your intestines, along with lots of other organs: bladder, kidneys, liver, spleen, pancreas, gallbladder, appendix, and adrenal glands.
All of these organs aren’t just bouncing around all over the place inside you — they’re held together inside you by a bag-like membrane called your peritoneum (say: pare-ih-tuh-NEE-um). This two-layered membrane also separates these organs from your outer abdominal muscles. Three layers of muscles — front, back, and side — support this “case” of organs and protect them.
Types of Tummy Troubles
A kid might feel belly pain many reasons, including:
- Constipation is one of the most common reasons for abdominal pain. If you haven’t had a bowel movement (poop) for a while or if it hurts to go to the bathroom or your bowel movements are hard, you are probably constipated.
- Diarrhea is often caused by an infection that some people call “the stomach flu.” Doctors call this type of diarrhea/infection gastroenteritis. When you have diarrhea — runny, watery bowel movements — you may also feel sick to your stomach. Feeling sick to your stomach and throwing up can also be linked to gastroenteritis. The pain is one way your body tells you to stay near a bathroom!
- An infection someplace else in your body may cause belly pain, too. A sore throat, pneumonia, an ear infection, or a cough can sometimes cause tummy trouble as well. Severe pain also can be caused by a urinary tract infection or a blocked intestine. Infection by bacteria or a parasite, heartburn, irritable bowel disease, or inflammatory bowel disease also can cause abdominal pain.
- Food. Some kids get abdominal pain because they ate too much of something, ate a food that was too spicy or greasy, ate a food they have an allergy to, or ate food that sat around in the fridge for too long and went bad. The pain is the body’s way of telling you that your stomach and intestines are having a tough job breaking down or digesting this food. For example, some people have lactose intolerance, which means they have a tough time digesting lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy foods. Whatever the cause, funky foods can quickly make your tummy feel funky!
- Appendicitis or other painful problems. If the pain starts by your belly button and then moves to the lower right side of your abdomen, it might be appendicitis. Fever or vomiting, along with pain that gets worse and worse and a loss of appetite, also can be signs of appendicitis.
- Stress. Many, many kids (and adults, too) have a “nervous stomach” when they are worried or stressed.
A Pain in the Brain
If there is no physical reason for you to have abdominal pain, the pain in your gut may really be a pain in your brain. If you’re stressed about something, you can get sharp pains in your stomach. Lots of kids do!
If you think this is happening to you, sit down with someone you trust and talk about what’s going on in your life. Are you worried about a bully at school? Are your parents fighting a lot? Did you do something you wish you hadn’t? Are you worried that you won’t get good grades? Talk it out. Many times, stressful worries become less stressful when they’re out in the open — instead of inside your stomach.
When you talk, make sure you find out what you can do about having less stress in your life so you can get rid of that painful nervous stomach.
Your doctor will first ask you some questions, examine you, and maybe do some tests. Your doctor may suggest you take some medicine or might give you special instructions for eating to help your body heal the bellyache.
If the doctor suspects you might have appendicitis, he or she may want to take a small sample of your blood and have it tested. Or, the doctor may ask you to have an X-ray, ultrasound, or CAT scan. These tests give the doctor more information about what’s going on inside you. If it turns out that you have appendicitis, you will need an operation called an appendectomy.
If stress seems to be causing your stomach problems, your doctor may recommend a specialist, such as a psychologist. These experts can help kids figure out the source of the stress and help them come up with some ideas for how to fix the problems or handle them better.
If you’d like to prevent bellyaches, here are some good tips to follow:
- Don’t overeat.
- Eat fiber-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, so your bowel movements are regular.
- Drink lots of fluids, especially water.
- Wash your hands before eating.
- Don’t eat right before bedtime.
- Get lots of sleep so your body doesn’t get run down.
If you have a bellyache, be sure to let an adult know what’s going on!
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014