Cramps are painful and involuntary muscular contractions. When they occur in a skeletal muscle (for example, the calves or thighs), they are typically caused by fatigue and excessive strain. However, cramps can also affect smooth muscles, found in the uterus (to help push out babies), the bladder (to push out urine) and the digestive tract (to move food). Pain associated with cramps can occur in any part of the abdomen.
What Causes Abdominal Cramps
The cause of abdominal cramps depends on the organ and the part of the abdomen where they are felt. The causes of some cramps are easier to determine than others. Below we have listed a couple of causes that can be most easily determined based on where in the abdominal area the pain is perceived.
Lower Abdominal Cramps
Cramping and pain on the lower left side of the abdomen is a possible symptom of diverticulitis. This condition happens when pouches or sacs form in the wall of the colon and get inflamed or infected. If the pain is severe, sudden and accompanied by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, gas or bloating, diverticulitis is likely the cause.
Cramps in the lower abdomen 3 minutes to 2 hours after drinking milk or eating dairy products point towards lactose intolerance.
Upper Abdominal Cramps
Experiencing a cramping pain in the middle to right upper abdomen for more than 30 minutes is a symptom of gallstones. This pain is known as a biliary colic or a gallbladder attack, and it occurs when a gallstone temporarily blocks the bile duct. The pain can radiate to the shoulder and back.
We should always keep in mind that the term ‘stomach cramps’ is very nonspecific and can refer to a variety of different sensations other than actual muscle cramps of the stomach. However, when your stomach actually starts cramping up, here are some of the causes.
Stomach Cramps Causes
Stomach cramps are among the mild symptoms related to food allergies. Other symptoms range from sneezing and itchy or watery eyes to swelling, difficulty breathing, hives, nausea and vomiting.
Stomach cramps paired with weakness, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting may be caused by food poisoning. If in addition to these symptoms you also experience a high fever and difficulty speaking or seeing, you need to contact your doctor immediately.
Severe Stomach Cramps
Severe abdominal cramps may be a symptom of intestinal obstruction. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, severe bloating, inability to pass gas or stool and abdominal swelling. A complete obstruction cannot be resolved without intestinal surgery.
Gastroenteritis or “stomach flu” is a condition caused by a viral or bacterial infection, in which the stomach and intestines become irritated and inflamed. Intestinal cramping in tandem with watery diarrhea and vomiting is a clear sign of gastroenteritis.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome, abbreviated as IBS, is a common chronic condition with symptoms that include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, bloating and constipation. Spastic colon is another name for this condition. The precise cause of irritable bowel syndrome remains unknown. Some of the possible causes are an overly sensitive colon or immune system.
While there is no permanent cure for irritable bowel syndrome, symptoms can be managed by making significant lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical exercise, reducing caffeine intake, eating smaller meals, keeping stress to a minimum, taking probiotics and refraining from deep-fried and spicy foods.
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten (name for proteins found in wheat). It can potentially lead to damage in the small intestine. While the most common symptoms include chronic diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, irritability and pale, foul-smelling stools, some women report experiencing cramps resembling menstrual cramps, only more subdued. Sticking to a gluten-free diet is the only way to alleviate the symptoms.
Abdominal cramps are among the earliest symptoms of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. A frequent urge to have bowel movement and feeling as if your bowels aren’t completely empty even after you pass stool are two of the more obvious signs. Increasing fiber intake and steering clear of dairy products and fatty foods is the least invasive treatment available. Some cases require medication (i.e. anti-inflammatory drugs) and surgery.
Menstrual cramps or dysmenorrhea are cramps, ranging from mild to severe, felt in your lower belly or back. They manifest as an aching pain in the belly that spreads to the hips, lower back and inner thighs, occasionally with a feeling of fullness. They are caused by contractions in the uterus.
Menstrual Cramps Relief
Menstrual cramps can be relieved with healthy lifestyle changes, the most important one being regular exercise. In addition, food supplements, primarily vitamin E, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-1 (thiamine) and vitamin B-6 can also be very effective. When it comes to natural remedies, fennel stands out as a great herbal remedy for menstrual cramps.
Menstrual cramps are usually experienced by women just before or during their periods. If you experience similar symptoms very often and at random times during your cycle, you may have to consider other, more serious causes.
Endometriosis is a condition that primarily affects women in their thirties and forties. Tissue that normally grows inside the uterus begins to spread and grow outside of it. Recurring pelvic pain ranging from mild to severe cramping is the main symptom of this disease. It is often paired with infertility, which affects 50% of women with endometriosis.
Genetic factors play a major role, and treatment options include:
- hormonal therapy
- anti-inflammatory drugs
Stomach Cramps Treatment
If you’re looking for simple ways to relieve stomach cramps at home, chamomile tea stands out as the most effective remedy for a wide spectrum of causes. It can help ease the pain, it has an anti-inflammatory effect and it relaxes the smooth muscle in the digestive tract.
Other remedies include:
- heating pad: relaxes muscles and the warmth alleviates discomfort
- ginger root tea: can help relax smooth muscle and also works against nausea
- peppermint tea: same as above, but with the added benefit of stimulating digestion
- rice water: water left over from cooking rice, provides relief by coating the stomach lining in a protective film
In the end, no matter what the cause may be, making significant lifestyle changes continues to be the most effective and beneficial way to treat abdominal cramps and other digestive problems in the long run. Unfortunately, many of the chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease and IBS have no permanent cure. However, if you make a decision right now to decrease your alcohol and caffeine intake, to eat smaller meals, to reduce your stress levels and to exercise regularly, your chances of developing such a disease in the first place will plummet.