Almost all of us get stomach cramps from time to time. They are usually harmless and will pass on their own. However, there are times when the cramping can signal something more serious that needs medical attention.
Read on to find out more about the various causes of stomach cramps, how to get rid of them, and when you should see a healthcare provider.
Causes of Stomach Cramps
Stomach cramps and abdominal pain can be caused by a variety of issues. Here’s a look at some of the most common ones.
A strained abdominal muscle can cause pain or cramping in the stomach. You can strain an abdominal muscle by lifting or twisting or simply by coughing or sneezing forcefully. The strain will heal on its own over time. Rest, ice, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help ease your discomfort.
Menstrual cramps may feel like a dull ache or a sharp pain in the lower area of the stomach (and occasionally the lower back or hips). Sometimes they are severe enough to interfere with everyday activities. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen), and a warm bath or heating pad can all help relieve menstrual cramps. If they are very painful, talk to your healthcare provider. It’s possible that hormonal treatments like birth control pills could help.
Symptoms of food poisoning can vary depending on the bacteria you ingested but often include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, upset stomach, fever, and diarrhea. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. If you have severe diarrhea or vomiting, a very high fever, or the food poisoning lasts for three or more days, contact your healthcare provider.
Gas is a natural occurrence, the result of your body breaking down fiber, sugar, and starch from your food. But sometimes your body is gassier than usual, causing bloating and pain or cramping. Constipation can cause gas, as well. Staying hydrated, eating a fiber-rich diet, and exercising can all help ease gas pain and discomfort.
A stomach virus, also called viral gastroenteritis or a stomach bug/flu, can cause diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps or pain, and vomiting. Most times, it doesn’t require treatment, and you’ll feel better after a few days. Keeping hydrated and replacing electrolytes can help ease your symptoms.
A food intolerance is when you have trouble digesting certain foods. This can cause bloating and stomach cramps/pain, usually a few hours after the food is eaten. It can also result in gas, diarrhea, or skin rashes. A food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy, which is an immune system reaction. Eliminating the food will usually prevent symptoms.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
“Irritable bowel syndrome” (IBS) is a term for symptoms that occur together, including stomach pain or cramping along with constipation, diarrhea, or both. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, which means it’s the result of the gut and brain not working properly together.
People with IBS do not have any visible signs of damage or disease in their digestive systems. IBS is treated with dietary and lifestyle changes, medicines, probiotics, and mental health therapies.
Constipation involves fewer than three bowel movements weekly, hard or difficult to pass stools, and feeling like you can’t pass all the stool. It often causes stomach pain and cramping. Eating more fiber, increasing the amount of water and other fluids you drink, staying active, and taking a fiber supplement can all relieve constipation.
Your body’s enteric nervous system, located in your gut, links your GI tract to your brain. This is why your emotions can affect how your stomach feels. If you are stressed or anxious, your body releases neurotransmitters and hormones that can impact gut motility as well as the balance of good and bad bacteria in your body, ultimately causing stomach cramping or discomfort.
Stomach cramps during pregnancy can be scary but are often due to something harmless, such as constipation, gas, or ligament pain as your ligaments stretch. Still, it’s a good idea to check with your provider if you’re concerned, if the cramps don’t go away after a bowel movement, or if you have any other symptoms.
How to Relieve Stomach Cramps
There are some things you can do to help relieve stomach cramps at home. Be sure to check with your provider before taking any medications, including OTCs.
Sometimes home remedies will ease stomach cramps. Things you might try include:
- Sipping water or broth
- Eating bland foods like rice, apple sauce, or crackers
- Eating small more meals frequently instead of larger ones
- Limiting your intake of gas-producing foods such as beans
If your stomach cramps are due to a diagnosed condition, your healthcare team will go over your treatment plan with you. If you have a question or want to make a change to the plan, always check with your provider first.
How to Prevent Stomach Cramps
Not all stomach pain can be prevented. But you may be able to reduce your chances of getting stomach cramps by:
- Washing your hands before you prepare and eat food
- Avoiding overeating and, if possible, refraining from eating right before bed or a workout
- Staying hydrated and eating foods high in fiber
- Checking expiration dates and tossing food that’s not fresh
- Avoiding foods you know you have a sensitivity to
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Stomach cramps are common and generally harmless, but there are times when your symptoms warrant medical attention.
Call your provider if you notice any of the following:
- Cramps that last a week or longer
- Pain that lasts longer than 24 hours, is increasingly severe, or is accompanied by nausea and/or vomiting
- Bloating for more than two days (outside of your menstrual cycle)
- Burning sensation when you pee and/or frequent urination
- Diarrhea that lasts for five days or more
- Fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit
- Persistent lack of appetite
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Unexplained weight loss
Call 911 or go to your local emergency room if you:
- Are being treated for cancer
- Cannot pass stool, especially if you are also throwing up
- Are vomiting blood or have bloody stools
- Have chest, neck, or shoulder pain
- Have sudden, sharp stomach pain
- Have pain in between your shoulder blades
- Notice your belly is hard or tender
- Are pregnant or may be pregnant
- Have recently been injured in your abdomen
- Have trouble breathing
Stomach cramps are generally harmless and very common. Figuring out the underlying cause will guide treatment, if any is needed.
A Word From Verywell
Sometimes stomach cramps cause only mild discomfort, but if yours are interfering with your day, or the pain is getting worse, talk to your healthcare provider. There are different treatments available that can help you feel better quickly.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you get rid of stomach cramps while running?
Stomach cramps during running are very common, affecting about 70% of runners. If you get cramps often when you run, try eating and drinking smaller amounts two hours before exercising. Deep, controlled breathing may also help.
How long do stomach cramps last?
The duration of stomach cramps depends on the underlying cause. If you’re not sure why you have them or the discomfort is getting worse, call your provider.
Should I go to the ER for stomach cramps?
It depends. If you are having trouble breathing, if you recently had an abdominal injury, or if you have chest, neck, or shoulder pain, you should go to the ER. You should also go to the ER if you have cramps and your belly is hard or tender, if you are being treated for cancer, or if you’re vomiting blood or have bloody stools. If you are having other symptoms and you are not sure, call your provider for medical advice.