What do abdominal cramps signal (also in pregnancy or in children)?

What do abdominal cramps signal (also in pregnancy or in children)?
Photo source: Getty images

Almost everyone experiences abdominal pain and cramps in the digestive tract during their lifetime. Cramps can signal dietary errors. They can also indicate various diseases. When is it appropriate to see a doctor? What helps relieve them?

An unpleasant sensation in the abdomen, a colicky and clenching pain. That's roughly how you describe abdominal cramps. It's a recurring stabbing pain. It lasts for a few seconds.

The aetiology of abdominal pain and cramps is quite diverse and multifactorial.

Possible causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and many other interesting information can be found in the article.

Abdominal cramps - cramps in the digestive tract

Cramps and pain in the organs of the digestive system take many forms. It depends on the exact cause of occurrence. Abdominal cramps are primarily a manifestation of disruption or irritation of the stomach and intestinal tract.

Gastric and intestinal cramps are difficult to localize. Abdominal cramps are described as clenching, cutting and coming in waves.

Cramps may be a signal of dietary error, overeating or the result of eating irritating foods. More frequent cramps may signal food intolerance or inflammatory disease of the digestive tract.

Other organ systems are located in the abdomen and pelvis. Abdominal cramps may be the result of irritation of various organ systems.

Etiology and possible causes of cramps

Pain is a warning sign of the human body. It warns of a developing disorder or irritation.

Abdominal cramps can be the result of various risk factors and diseases. The most common etiology and causes of both pain and abdominal cramps are explained below.

Dietary (eating) error

Abdominal pain and cramps often occur shortly after eating an inappropriate amount or type of food. Overeating slows down the digestive tract and nutrient processing.

Eating and swallowing large mouthfuls can irritate the walls of the digestive system.

Conversely, inadequate food intake and starvation leads to contractions, stomach clenching and uncomfortable cramps.

Excessively hot, spicy and hot foods can also be an error. Such foods irritate the sensitive stomach. The worst case scenario is food poisoning. In this case, the individual consumes undercooked, spoiled and contaminated foods.

If the body does not regularly take in sufficient amounts of macronutrients, micronutrients and fiber, digestive problems can commonly occur.

Inadequate protein and fibre intake is a common mistake. Excessive intake of simple sugars and unhealthy fats can also cause problems.

Often pain and cramps are caused by excessive intake of simple sugars and unhealthy fats.

Constipation (obstipation)

Constipation (inability to pass stools) can cause pain and cramps, bloating andflatulence Depending on the duration and etiology, it is divided into acute (short-term) and chronic.

Constipation can be the result of inadequate fiber intake, stress, lack of exercise, drug therapy, organic causes and digestive tract disorders.

Stress and nervousness (emotional factor)

Abdominal cramps are quite often associated with stress and emotional strain.

Before a demanding exam, interview, performance or speech, nervousness can reflexively cause gastrointestinal spasms and a short-term change in bowel movements (constipation, diarrhea, increased stool frequency).

Food allergies and intolerances

The basic symptoms of food allergies and intolerances include abdominal cramps. They occur relatively soon after eating a particular allergen, such as gluten. They may cause stomach pain after eating.

Other symptoms include bloating, indigestion, flatulence and problems with bowel movements (diarrhoea/constipation).

The individual's immune system releases antibodies that fight against the inappropriate food ingredient. Common food allergies and intolerances can be triggered by lactose (milk sugar), gluten, soy, peanuts, eggs or spices.

The most serious form of gluten intolerance (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye) is a disease called celiac disease.

Gluten causes damage to the wall of the small intestine, causing abdominal cramps and pain, gas, bloating, fatigue, headaches and more.

Gastroenteritis/intestinal flu

This is inflammatory disease of the stomach It presents with crampy abdominal pain, general weakness, nausea, increased body temperature, sometimes vomiting and loose stools (diarrhoea).

The disease is known as stomach or intestinal flu. It can be caused by eating contaminated food, a virus, bacteria or parasite. The exact etiology of the infection and treatment is determined by a doctor (gastrointestinologist).

Gastroesophageal reflux

In gastroesophageal reflux , stomach acid returns from the stomach back into the oesophagus.

The acid irritates the wall of the oesophagus and can damage it. This causes pain or cramps in the upper part of the stomach.

Reflux may recur regularly after eating or after getting up in the morning.

Untreated reflux can bring discomfort and risks. It is advisable to adjust lifestyle, diet and supportive treatment prescribed by a doctor.

Chronic inflammatory bowel disease

Chronic inflammatory bowel disease is an unpleasant autoimmune disease of the intestinal tract. It requires long-term treatment and monitoring by a gastrointestinologist.

IBD = Inflammatory Bowel Disease = inflammatory bowel disease = idiopathic bowel disease = non-specific inflammatory bowel disease

Crohn's disease Causes inflammation in various parts of the digestive tract. Can lead to abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhoea, bloody stools, weight loss and inflammation around the rectum.

Another example is ulcerative colitisa chronic inflammatory disease affecting the large intestine and rectum. It presents with abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and subsequent weight loss.

These diseases are mainly manifested by pain and abdominal cramps after straining the digestive tract. Lifestyle, diet and eating habits need to be modified and, if necessary, supportive medication is required.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic disease affecting the large intestine. This functional disorder affects approximately 10% of the population worldwide.

IBS = Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Can cause abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. Triggers for this syndrome include poor diet, stress, genetic predisposition, hormonal imbalances and more.

Irritable stomach(also functional dyspepsia) is a functional digestive disorder. A common manifestation of irritable stomach is premature satiety, feeling full, pain and cramping in the abdominal area.

It has a multifactorial etiology of physical, psychological and social factors. One possible cause is hypersensitivity of the nervous system in the digestive area.

Peptic (stomach) ulcers

Peptic ulcers occur on the inner lining of the wall of the stomach or the upper part of the small intestine (duodenum). The most common symptoms of peptic ulcers are stomach pain, burning, a tender stomach and abdominal cramps.

Gastric ulcers occur mainly when the surface of the gastric mucosa is damaged by acid, after inappropriate irritant drug therapy or due to the presence of bacteria.

Inflammation of the appendix (appendicitis)

This is one of the most common surgically treated causes of abdominal pain. The appendix is quite erratic. When inflamed, it can cause severe pain.

In a typical case, the pain starts above the navel and in the middle of the abdomen. It moves to the right lower abdomen. This is an acute, high-risk condition. An urgent visit to the doctor is necessary.

Read more:
What are the causes and typical symptoms of appendicitis?

Other diseases

Abdominal pain is a general common symptom of many health problems and diagnoses. It can be a disorder of other surrounding organs - pancreatitis, gastritis, gallstones, kidney stones, benign or malignant diseases of the digestive tract and other abdominal organs.

Gallstones prevent the physiological release of bile. Therefore, it is possible to experience pain and cramps in the stomach after eating. Pancreatitis is characterised by burning and pain mainly in the left upper and middle part of the abdomen.

Kidney stones are formed by the accumulation of mineral salts in the urine. When a urinary stone moves from the renal pelvis below into the urinary tract, attacks of pain and cramps occur.

Because of the many possible diseases of the digestive, excretory and genital systems, diagnosis by a physician is necessary.

Abdominal cramps in pregnancy

Abdominal cramps in pregnancy can scare women.

Mild abdominal cramps may not indicate any serious health problem. In early pregnancy, cramps may be caused by the gradual stretching of ligaments (ligament) and the growth of the uterus.

Abdominal and lower abdominal cramps are affected by the movements of the fetus itself. Another cause may be gas or constipation.

Severe, painful and non-specific cramps can be a sign of more serious problems in pregnancy. They can also indicate a problem in a woman's sexual or urinary system.

Sometimes contractions can be behind the cramps. They start around the 20th week of pregnancy. The contractions are irregular and gradually prepare the woman's body for labour.

Much more serious are cramps due to ectopic pregnancy, premature placental abruption, pre-eclampsia or premature birth.

With any suspicion and severe cramps, a consultation with a gynecologist is necessary.

In women, abdominal cramps are very common even outside pregnancy. premenstrual syndrome. Occasionally, abdominal cramps can be the cause inflammation of the ovariesIt is necessary to seek the help of a gynaecologist in case of non-specific pain.

Cramps in young children

Abdominal pain is a very common symptom in childhood and one of the most difficult diagnostic problems in paediatrics.

In most cases, mild abdominal cramps in children are a non-serious digestive problem. In some situations, it is advisable to seek medical attention.

It may be a problem with digestion of food, stool or physiological passing of winds.

The problem may be caused by obstruction or blockage of the intestines.

In school children, intestinal infections (gastroenteritis) are quite common. They are mainly caused by infection with a virus, bacteria or parasite.

In the case of pain lasting more than 3 hours, sudden sharp pain, fever, vomiting, the presence of blood in the stool and other serious symptoms, professional medical help should be sought immediately in young children.

Symptoms and manifestations. When to seek medical attention?

Abdominal cramps are a very common problem with dietary error or overeating. Severe, prolonged or recurrent cramps can signal more serious problems. Therefore, it is good to be vigilant.

The cramps are manifested by a pinching, jerking pain. The pain is repetitive and comes in waves.

When to seek urgent medical attention?

  • If you have severe and non-specific cramps
  • If the cramps persist and do not subside
  • If you have an elevated temperature (fever)
  • If you vomit or have difficulty defecating
  • If you have prolonged and recurrent cramps
  • If you have severe chest pain
  • If you have sudden severe pain and cramps in your abdomen
  • If you have been in an accident and are experiencing pain/cramps
  • If you have blood in your stools or your stools are black/green in colour
  • If you are pregnant

Diagnosis and treatment of abdominal cramps

Initial diagnosis consists of a basic examination by palpation, listening, taking a medical history and assessing clinical symptoms. Often an ultrasound examination of the abdominal organs is indicated.

According to the physician's assessment, the next diagnostic procedure is chosen.

Examples include endoscopy, gastroscopy, colonoscopy, stool sampling, blood sampling, magnetic resonance imaging, CT scan, X-ray and other examinations.

On the basis of laboratory and imaging methods, the cause of the cramps and abdominal pain is determined. Subsequently, the gastroenterologist chooses the method of treatment.

In most cases, this involves lifestyle changes, diet and medication. In severe rare cases, surgical treatment is chosen (e.g. appendicitis).

For bacterial infections of the digestive system, treatment with antibiotics is mainly indicated. For inflammatory diseases, corticosteroids, aminosalicylates and other drugs that eliminate the inflammatory process are chosen.

Often antispasmodic drugs are chosen to relax the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, antacids to reduce stomach acid and in some cases analgesics for pain.

For food allergies and intolerances, long-term dietary changes and modifications are chosen with the help of a nutritionist.

Home treatment - what helps?

Gastric cramps caused by non-severe conditions can usually be treated at home. Home treatment is possible for cramps caused by bloating, dietary error or overeating.

Severe or prolonged cramps need to be addressed with a specialist.

The aim of home treatment is to relax the muscles of the digestive tract, calm the stomach and promote bowel peristalsis.

The local application of heat relaxes the stomach muscles, circulates the area and aids digestion. Heat should be used with caution in acute inflammation.

Resting is recommended.

Peristaltic massage in the direction of bowel movement helps to release muscle tension and reflexively contracted soft structures. Gentle massage promotes peristalsis, digestion and bowel movement. It promotes emptying and elimination of flatulence.

Movement activity and appropriate exercise helps to promote bowel motility, digestion and emptying in a preventive way.

Hydration is also important. When vomiting or diarrhoea occurs, electrolytes are lost due to dehydration.

A change in diet can help prevent pain and stomach cramps. It will support the overall health of the digestive system.

Consuming fibre can help people with constipation and slow digestion.

Adequate intake of vitamins, minerals and probiotics is recommended. Alcohol, caffeine, fatty, irritating, flammable and spicy foods should be limited.

Adherence to a food intolerance diet is important.

fshare on Facebook

Interesting resources

  • healthline.com - What causes abdominal pain and how to treat it. Healthline. April Kahn
  • solen.sk - Abdominal pain in childhood. Solen. Iveta Čierna, MD, PhD.
  • MARTÍNEK, Jan and Pavel TRUNEČKA. Gastroenterology and Hepatology in Algorithms. Prague: Maxdorf, [2021]. Jessenius. ISBN 978-80-7345-684-9
  • healthdirect.gov.au - What causes upper stomach pain? Medical News Today. Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., MSN
  • medicalnewstoday.com - 15 possible causes of abdominal pain. Medical News Today. Graham Rogers, M.D..
The aim of the portal and content is not to replace professional examination. The content is for informational and non-binding purposes only, not advisory. In case of health problems, we recommend seeking professional help, visiting or contacting a doctor or pharmacist.