Upper stomach pain is usually a sign of a health problem like reflux, gastritis or indigestion. It can also be a sign of a more serious condition, however, like gallbladder inflammation, pancreatitis or even a myocardial infarct.
In most cases, this type of pain (also referred to as epigastric pain) is not concerning, although it is common to also experience symptoms like heartburn, nausea, vomiting, gas, bloating or diarrhea.
If the upper stomach pain is very intense, does not improve within a few hours, or is accompanied by symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, a tight chest sensation or fainting, you should go to your nearest emergency room for assessment.
What causes upper stomach pain?
Although stomach pain can have many possible causes, only a medical evaluation can determine what is happening and which treatment is most appropriate. These are the most common causes of upper stomach pain:
Gastritis is an inflammation of the stomach lining. It can cause a upper stomach pain, which from mild to moderate to intense. The pain is associated with a burning or tightening feeling which emerges especially after eating.
Generally, gastritis can also cause symptoms like nausea, a full feeling after eating, burping, excessive gas and even vomiting (which can actually feel relieving). Learn more about gastritis symptoms and complete our online symptom quiz.
This inflammation can be triggered for many reasons, like an unhealthy diet rich in fried food, stress, frequent use of anti-inflammatories or an Helicobacter pylori infection.
How to relieve: Treatment should be prescribed by a gastroenterologist, and may involve the use of medications like omeprazole to reduce stomach acid production. With an H. pylori infection, antibiotics (like clarithromycin or amoxicillin) may also be indicated.
Changing your diet habits is also essential. You should avoid alcohol and spicy foods. Read more about the foods that are indicated and contraindicated for a gastritis diet.
Esophagitis is an inflammation of the esophageal tissue which is generally produced by acid reflux or a hiatal hernia. This inflammation can cause stomach pain and burning in the thorax which worsens after meals. The pain can also worsen after consuming certain foods, like caffeine, alcohol and fried food. Pain is frequently felt at night and does not resolve with rest.
Get an understanding of what can cause acid reflux and the symptoms associated with it.
How to relieve: Treatment is usually prescribed by a doctor an includes medications that decrease stomach acid (like omeprazole or famotidine), as well as lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol, fatty foods, sugar and ready-made meals. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to prevent food regurgitation and to improve symptoms. You can also try these home remedies for GERD if your esophagitis is related to acid reflux.
The body can have difficulty digesting foods for many reasons, such as:
- Eating excessive amounts food
- Eating foods that are usually not well-tolerated by your body
- Eating food that is contaminated with bacteria or other microorganisms
- Eating lactose
These situations can cause stomach lining irritation, the production of excessive gas, reflux, and increased intestinal flow. These symptoms can all lead to upper stomach pain, or pain felt anywhere in the abdomen, and can be accompanied by gas, diarrhea or constipation.
How to relieve: In these cases, pain tends to resolve within a few hours. You can take medication to relieve discomfort (like antacids or analgesics), drink plenty of fluids and eat light meals. You can also try home made remedies, like taking boldo tea or anise tea. You should also try eating food that does not irritate the stomach, like gelatin and dry biscuits.
4. Gallbladder stones
Gallbladder stones can cause intense abdominal pain. It is mostly felt in the upper right abdomen, but some people may also experience upper stomach pain. The pain feels like a cramp that worsens quickly, and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Learn more about the symptoms and causes of gallstones.
How to relieve: The gastroenterologist can prescribe medications that dissolve the gallstone and releive symptoms, like ursodeoxycholic acid, as well as analgesics and anti-emetics to relieve discomfort and pain. Other procedures may also be advised, like shockwave therapy to dissolve gallstones or surgery to remove the gallbladder. It is also important to change certain lifestyle habits, like reducing your consumption of fatty foods or red meat. See other natural remedies for gallstones you can try at home.
5. Acute pancreatitis
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, an organ located in the center of abdomen. It is important for the digestion of food and the production of hormones. Pancreatitis can cause sudden and very intense pain that can radiate to the upper stomach. This pain is associated with vomiting, bloating and constipation.
How to relieve: Acute pancreatitis is an urgent medical condition that should be treated quickly to avoid widespread inflammation in the body. The first interventions for pancreatitis include fasting, IV hydration and analgesics. If an infections is identified, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics like ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin or vancomycin. Severe cases may require surgery.
6. Heart attack
Cardiac problems, like a myocardial infection, may lead to upper stomach pain instead of typical chest pain. Although it is not as common, upper stomach pain associated with an infarct is usually associated with a burning or tightening sensation, and can additionally cause nausea, vomiting, cold sweats or shortness of breath.
Cardiac problems are usually suspected in people with risk factors for heart attacks, like age, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, smoking or other heart conditions. Be sure you know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
How to relieve: If you suspect an infarct, you should present immediately to the emergency room. The doctor will conduct the first evaluations to determine the cause of pain. Testing may include an ECG and cardiac troponins, which will determine whether immediate treatment is necessary.
7. Gastric ulcers
A gastric ulcer can occur as a result of gastritis that was left untreated. It is characterized by the appearance of a wound on the stomach lining, which can worsen after meals (which is when the release of stomach acid is stimulated). Ulcer pain is often felt in the upper stomach or middle of the chest.
This pain is often pulsating in nature and can radiate to other areas, like the chest and back. Gastric ulcers often also cause other symptoms, like frequent nausea, stomach heaviness and vomiting (which may or may not contain blood). Learn more about the symptoms of gastric ulcers and what can cause them.
How to relieve: You are advised to see a gastroenteroloigst as soon as possible so that treatment can be started without further complications.
Generally, appendicitis pain can start in the upper stomach and around the belly button. Then, it can "shift" to the right, at which point, pain also becomes more intense.
Learn more about other symptoms of appendicitis to look out for.
How to relieve: If you suspect you may have appendicitis, proceed immediately to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment. Treatment usually involves surgical removal of the appendix before it ruptures.
Pericarditis is a condition associated with inflammation of the lining of the heart. It can cause chest pain or upper stomach pain, similar to a heart attack. Generally, pericarditis is caused by infections (like pneumonia or tuberculosis), rheumatic diseases (like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis), or thoracic radiation therapy.
How to relieve: Treatment for pericarditis should be monitored by a cardiologist. It can vary with the type of pericarditis and the underlying cause of it. The doctor will usually prescribe analgesics, antipyretics, NSAIDs, antibiotics and/or corticosteroids.
10. Excess gas
Gas in the stomach is a relatively common problem that normally occurs due to swallowing too much air. This can happen following a large meal or from talking too much when eating. Drinking fizzy drinks and eating gassy foods, like eggs, cauliflower or onion, can also lead to trapped air in the stomach.
Learn more about the symptoms of gas in both the stomach and intestines.
How to relieve: This extra air is released through flatulence or burping and symptoms are usually almost instantaneously relieved. You can prevent stomach pain from excess gas by avoiding chewing gum, eating slowly and reducing how much you talk during meals. Check out some home remedies for gas pain that you can try to resolve mild pain.
If upper stomach pain does not resolve with simple interventions, you should see a doctor for further assessment.
Diverticulitis is a bowel condition characterized by inflammation and/or infection of the diverticula, which are small pouches in the walls of the intestines. Although diverticula and any associated inflammation are usually seen in the lower intestines, they can become swollen in the upper intestines, causing upper stomach pain.
Other common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fever and stools with blood.
How to relieve: Diverticulitis treatment should be monitored by a gastroenterologist. The treatment approach will depend on the intensity of the symptoms and the underlying cause of the inflammation. The doctor may prescribe analgesic medication and/or anti-inflammatory medication to relieve symptoms, as well as antibiotics, like ciprofloxacin and metronidazole, to treat or prevent any infections.