Abdominal Pain: When to Seek Emergency Treatment

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, abdominal pain is the most common reason for emergency room visits in the US. Out of nearly 139 million emergency room visits, more than 12 million are due to abdominal pain.

Abdominal pain doesn’t just involve the stomach. You have several other organs in the abdominal area, which is defined as between the chest and the pelvis. You have intestines, the pancreas, the liver, the gallbladder, kidneys, a spleen, and your appendix (if you still have all of your original equipment). Any one of these can be the culprit behind your tummy ache.

People report all kinds of abdominal maladies, including:

  • Indigestion, nausea, or vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Constipation or bloating
  • Pain across the abdomen or only in one spot
  • Sharp pain and dull pain
  • Acute pain and chronic pain

It isn’t surprising that the decision to take your stomachache to the ER might be confusing.

What Is Abdominal Pain?

Abdominal pain is pain felt anywhere between the chest and the pelvic region, so pretty much between your ribs and your pelvic bone. The pain can be intense or dull, and it might even feel like a pulled muscle (and might be).

Abdominal pain that lands you in the doctor’s office or ER is often the result of infection by a virus, bacteria, or parasite. The pain can originate in your stomach and intestines or radiate from another organ. It can feel like cramps, an ache, dull, intermittent, or sharp. It can be localized to one area of the abdomen, or your entire abdomen can hurt.

These are all clues your healthcare provider uses to narrow down the problem.

There Are Different Types of Pain

Pain can be acute, meaning it has been hurting for a week or less. On the other hand, chronic pain is constant or recurring (intermittent or episodic) and lasts for three months or longer. Progressive pain gets worse over time and might start with chronic pain. Other symptoms often join the pain as it progresses and can often signal something more serious is at work.

Colicky pain comes and goes. One minute you’re OK; the next, you have a sudden sharp pain in your abdomen, often caused by things like gallstones or kidney stones. 

Cramps often occur with:

  • Diarrhea 
  • Constipation 
  • Bloating 
  • Flatulence (gas)
  • Menstruation 
  • Miscarriage 
  • Reproductive complications

If you have cramps, the doctor will want to figure out why, because some of these causes require immediate medical attention.

The Causes of Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain can be caused by:

  • Infection 
  • Abnormal growths like tumors
  • Inflammation 
  • Obstruction (blockage)
  • Intestinal disorders
  • Diseases that affect abdominal organs

Infections can start in the throat, intestines, and blood, allowing bacteria to enter the digestive tract and cause pain and changes in digestion.

Severe chronic abdominal pain is typically caused by organ rupture or near rupture, such as a burst appendix, gallstones, kidney stones, and kidney infection. Appendicitis can also cause generalized pain, as can:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Traumatic injury 
  • Urinary tract infections (UTI)
  • The flu
  • Irritable bowel syndrome. 

Your doctor might try to narrow the pain to one part or “quadrant” of your abdomen because specific illnesses and diseases are found in those areas. You’ll be asked a list of questions about when the pain started, where you feel it, how it feels, whether it’s constant or periodic, and your bathroom habits. 

Your healthcare provider also uses various types of tests, including MRI, ultrasound, and X-rays, to look at the organs, tissues, and other abdominal structures. 

Sometimes, the doctor needs to perform a colonoscopy to look inside your intestines, an endoscopy to detect abnormalities in your esophagus or stomach, or an Upper GI to look for growths, ulcers, blockages, and other abnormalities of the stomach.

Blood, urine, and stool samples also help identify what’s wrong if you have a viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection.

When Should You Go to the Emergency Room with Abdominal Pain?

For sure, go to the ER if:

  • You have stomach pain and are pregnant
  • You had recent gastric bypass surgery, colostomy, or bowel resection
  • The pain starts within one week of having abdominal surgery or a GI procedure like an endoscopy
  • Your abdomen looks bruised or is rapidly expanding in size
  • You have experienced severe abdominal trauma like falling, an auto accident, or being punched or hit.

If you have any of the following symptoms, call an ambulance or have someone drive you to your local emergency room — do NOT drive yourself, and do NOT wait and see or take pain medicine.

Other symptoms that may warrant emergency treatment include:

  • An extremely hard abdomen (which could be appendicitis, bowel obstructions, or bowel perforation)
  • Abdominal tenderness when touched
  • Vomiting that won’t stop
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Coughing or vomiting up blood
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Inability to have a bowel movement plus vomiting
  • Pain in your neck, shoulder, or between your shoulder blades
  • Vision changes
  • Constant or severe abdominal pain
  • Pain plus a high fever
  • Changes in pain intensity like dull to sharp or moving around the abdomen
  • Pain with other symptoms like difficulty breathing or changes in behavior

It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Family First ER is open 24/7 to provide the emergency medical attention you need. If you are experiencing abdominal pain, visit our facility to get high-quality care from our emergency physicians and nurses – no appointment needed.

Should you go to the ER if you have diarrhea?

If you are also vomiting, you could have a viral or bacterial infection. If the diarrhea is frequent and/or you throw up a lot, you can become dehydrated, requiring a healthcare facility to give you IV fluids. The ER might also give you an anti-emetic, a medication to help stop nausea and vomiting.

A note about norovirus

According to the CDC, norovirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis around the world. Symptoms and duration can vary between people, even family members. There is no test for it. The doctor diagnoses by symptoms and news of a local outbreak, whether you were on a cruise or having trouble during cold weather when people get together indoors and spread germs. 

Ouch! Kidney Stones

You will definitely know if you are passing a kidney stone. You will have very intense pain, way beyond a 10, in the side of your back or your abdomen. It’s incapacitating and can lead to nausea and vomiting. 

If you have a kidney stone, please go to the ER. Don’t drive yourself; get someone else to take you.


Poisoning in adults is rare, but you can get liver inflammation by taking too many medications for everyday aches and pains. Unfortunately, you don’t feel pain or find out until you have liver damage. Be sure to read labels and only take the recommended dosage. Also, take care with over-the-counter drugs that contain multiple medications.

With children, poisoning can happen when they get into adult prescription or over-the-counter medication as well as cleaners, soaps, and other stuff that should be kept out of reach.

If you suspect that your child may be poisoned, call the poison control center. If recommended, visit the emergency room.

Family First ER Is Here to Help

No matter what type of abdominal pain you experience or any other symptom, no matter how embarrassing or icky, don’t hesitate to come see us for severe abdominal pain, endless vomiting or diarrhea, or any other reason listed above. 

When in doubt, call us or come in and see Family First ER. Our experienced physicians are waiting to take care of you.