What Does IBS Stomach Pain Feel Like?
IBS stomach or abdominal pain comes in many forms and feels similar to other types of pain in that area of the body. The pain can be sharp or a dull ache, constant or intermittent, and range from mildly annoying to severe enough to need hospitalization.
Types of IBS Pain
IBS pain can vary a lot in how much it hurts (mild to severe), how it presents (gas, cramps, inflammation, or bloating), and where you can feel the pain in your abdomen. IBS pain can occur sitting, standing, or lying down, during the day or at night, before or after eating or nowhere near eating. The pain can be felt anywhere in the abdominal area, from the stomach down to the lower colon or rectal area. You might feel a dull, aching, or sharp pain that can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. In some instances, pain can be constant.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that involves one or more of the following symptoms: abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, gas, or bloating. Pain can vary considerably from one IBS sufferer to another, though not everyone with IBS will have pain. Those who do will often provide varying descriptions of their pain. Some people are more sensitive to pain than others. The level of pain a person experiences may also be due to differences in the gut-brain axis (the neurological connection between the gut and the brain) and how the body experiences pain.
The pain often associated with IBS feels like a clear sign from your body, informing you there is damage, and something is significantly wrong. While there is something wrong, the cause of IBS pain is not something as obvious as visible damage to your insides.
Some may refer to the chronic abdominal pain in IBS as visceral pain because the intestinal tract is part of the viscera, which are your internal organs. IBS pain is not associated with structural damage, as seen with other gastrointestinal disorders like inflammatory bowel disease or ulcers. That said, the pain is just as real, even though most people who experience chronic abdominal pain with IBS have normal results on blood tests, colonoscopy, and x-rays.
Causes of IBS stomach/abdominal pain include inflammation, intestinal tract spasms, trapped gas, bloating and distension, or constipation. Each of these topics deserves special attention:
- Inflammation: A major cause of abdominal pain in IBS, inflammation generally cannot be seen or easily measured by doctors, even during a colonoscopy. The inflammation is occurring at a microscopic level, which Dr. Piche documented in the journal Neurogastroenterology and Motility. IBS patients often recognize this sensation and may describe feeling inflamed even when their doctor does not see inflammation.
- Spasms of the Colon or Intestinal Tract: In some forms of IBS, there are spasms of the muscles responsible for moving food down the GI tract. Like other types of muscle spasms, they can be extremely painful and even debilitating. In the past, IBS was sometimes called spastic colitis, and occasionally this term is still in use.
- Trapped Gas: Gas is produced by the breakdown of your food, which involves the bacteria in your digestive tract. Typically, there is minimal gas production during this bodily function. When the microbiome in your digestive tract is disturbed or imbalanced, gas production can change and increase dramatically. This effect may or may not be visible as bloating, and it may or may not result in flatulence. Gas production can occur fast, and if the gas becomes trapped inside your intestinal tract, it can lead to surprisingly significant amounts of pain.
- Bloating: There are a few causes of bloating, such as trapped gas, inflammation, or constipation. In these situations, the bloating can lead to distension of the abdomen, which stretches the belly. In this case, the distension is what’s uncomfortable and can lead to significant pain.
- Constipation: This cause of IBS pain is more straightforward. The longer that you don’t have a bowel movement, the more stool is building up inside your colon. And the more stool in your colon, the more uncomfortable you will become.
You can experience any of these types of IBS pain alone or in combination, and it’s impossible to know if it’s one or more than one thing causing the pain based on what you feel.
Does IBS Cause Sharp Abdominal Pain?
Some patients with IBS have sharp or stabbing abdominal pain that can be so severe they are sure there is something terribly wrong. You can experience this acute pain anywhere in the abdomen or stomach, which feels mysterious due to its debilitating nature.
You should have any sharp stomach pain evaluated by your doctor or go to the ER. If they can’t find a culprit for the pain—which is surprisingly common—then you have IBS pain. In the absence of solving your IBS pain, you will want to treat the symptoms. That means taking an over the counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. This treatment is not a long-term solution, and you shouldn’t take it daily.
IBS and Lower Abdominal Pain
IBS can cause surprisingly severe lower abdominal pain on the right or left sides, or in the middle of the lower abdomen. IBS pain triggers can worsen lower abdominal pain and be the most painful just before a bowel movement.
The colon, which runs along the lower abdomen, is where we form and store stool before it leaves the body. This type of IBS pain may be associated with stool in the colon and may be relieved by a bowel movement. This is not always the case, as many other factors can cause lower abdominal pain.
It is not uncommon for lower abdominal pain to be so severe that people go to the hospital seeking treatment for something they assume must be more than IBS. If you are experiencing new lower abdominal pain that hasn’t been diagnosed, you should see your doctor.
Lower Left Abdominal Pain from IBS
Lower left abdominal pain in IBS is a fairly common complaint. The lower left part of the abdomen is associated with the latter part of the colon, and in IBS, it’s commonly irritated, either with gas, intestinal spasms, or constipation.
If you are experiencing pain in this area, the treatment is similar to those for stomach pain. That said, peppermint oil probably won’t help because its affect will be primarily in the upper digestive tract. You should try the other remedies and find the approach that works best for you.
If this is a new pain that has not yet been checked out by your doctor, be sure to schedule an appointment and get a thorough evaluation.
Lower Right Abdominal Pain from IBS
If you are experiencing lower right-sided abdominal pain, use the same methods for relieving stomach and upper abdominal pain. This location doesn’t indicate any one particular problem, and any of the various characteristics of IBS pain can be at play in this location.
Does IBS Cause Pain in the Stomach?
IBS can cause severe pain that can feel like anything from a stabbing pain to a dull aching sensation in the stomach or the upper abdomen. This pain can occur centrally or on the right or left sides of the abdomen.
The stomach sits high in the abdomen, and the intestines are everywhere in the abdomen, so it’s difficult to distinguish between true stomach pain and upper abdominal pain. Either organ may have pain associated with bloating. This feeling may intensify after eating (though this is not always the case) and can involve any of the underlying characteristics of IBS pain. Like all IBS pain, it can be unpredictable and come and go without rhyme or reason, or it can be relatively constant.
If you are experiencing stomach or upper abdominal pain that has not yet been evaluated by your doctor, then be sure to get it checked out right away.
When to Be Concerned About IBS Pain
You should always be concerned when you have abdominal pain and see your doctor or go to the ER for pain that is new or severe—especially if you haven’t seen a doctor for it before. There are dozens of reasons that you can have abdominal pain, some of which are emergencies. Only a doctor can tell the difference.
IBS pain can rate from a 1 out of 10 to 10 out of 10. Keep in mind that many IBS sufferers do not have any pain. While 10 out of 10 may seem extreme, it’s not unusual. People with IBS pain may experience it every day, once a week, once a month, or once every several months. The pain may last a couple of hours to a few days, or be relatively constant, and varies from person to person.
- Severe pain that prevents you from doing other things.
- Mild pain that lasts more than two days.
- New pain that you haven’t experienced before and doesn’t go away within two hours.
- Pain that hasn’t already been thoroughly evaluated by your doctor.
- Vomiting with the pain.
- Blood in your stool.
- You’ve had recent abdominal surgery or trauma.
- You are pregnant.
If a doctor or the ER haven’t solved the cause of your pain, then you should see an IBS specialist.
IBS Stomach Pain Triggers
Many things can trigger IBS pain, and range from foods that are general irritants or difficult to digest to stress, anxiety, and things that cause nervousness. Medications and hormone changes can also trigger IBS. These triggers don’t cause nor will they cure IBS.
IBS pain triggers are things that often will make your IBS pain worse. Triggers include:
- Stress, Anxiety, and Nervousness: These feelings generally make IBS pain worse. They never make it better. They are also usually not the cause of your IBS pain but can exacerbate an underlying cause. For more information on this, visit our page on Stress.
- Over-Exercising: While some exercise can be good for your IBS, exerting yourself too much taxes your body, making you more susceptible to IBS pain. Stick to moderate exercise, and don’t overdo it. If your exercise is exhausting you, even if it’s basic, then you are overdoing it.
- Certain Foods: Some foods are difficult to digest or are otherwise hard on your digestive system. Foods that are known to trigger IBS pain include acidic foods, spicy foods, soft drinks, caffeinated beverages, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, nuts, raw vegetables, and fruits such as apples.
- Medications: The list of drugs that can trigger abdominal and stomach pain is far too long to display here. Some of the more common medications that can trigger IBS pain include:
- Antacids such as Pepcid, Tagamet, and Zantac
- NSAIDs such as aspirin and acetaminophen
- Blood pressure medications such as metoprolol and verapamil
- Chemotherapy for cancer
If you take any medications, be sure to look up a comprehensive list of potential side-effects and check out whether or not your medication could be causing your symptoms. Don’t rely on your doctor to know. There are far too many potential side-effects of medications for any doctor to know them all.
- Hormones: Monthly female hormone changes, as well as taking thyroid medications or hormones for birth control, can make your IBS worse. For men, taking testosterone can also make the condition worse.
How to Relieve General Stomach Pain
You can provide relief for stomach or abdominal pain by applying topical treatments to taking supplements. One of the most common and old school treatments for IBS pain is to use a heating pad or hot water bottle. This method is a classic but is still relevant and worth trying for severe flare-ups where you can’t get any other relief.
A twist on using heat is to put castor oil on a thin old cloth, lay that on your belly, and then cover it with plastic wrap and then place a hot water bottle on top of that. Castor oil has known anti-inflammatory properties and will help more than just a hot water bottle.
You can also sip a nice soothing tea to help with IBS abdominal pain. The best options are peppermint, chamomile, anise, and fennel teas. (Note: If you happen to be on a FODMAP diet, chamomile and fennel teas aren’t low FODMAP foods.)
Eat well-cooked foods that are gentle on your digestive system. Bone broth is quite nutritional and healing for IBS pain. Steamed veggies, apple sauce, and soft yams all generally go down well. Avoid eating any foods on the IBS trigger list. These foods are either acidic, are known to cause digestive problems, or are just plain harder to digest than well cooked and simple foods.
Try some over the counter remedies for IBS pain, such as peppermint oil, which can relax the intestinal tract. Gas remedies such as Gas-X can also help. The latest remedy on the market is CBD oil, a non-habit-forming treatment that is available in many states at Walgreens and CVS stores.
Regular old acetaminophen or ibuprofen may also provide relief of your IBS pain. However, I don’t recommend using these products long term as they can also cause abdominal pain.
And last, but not to be underestimated, take the time to develop relaxation techniques that you can rely on when you need them. Try practicing deep breathing, imagery work, visualization, and imagery focused on relaxing the belly. Hypnotherapy recordings can also be a valuable tool for learning to relax.
When to See an IBS Specialist for Abdominal Pain
See a doctor if you’re experiencing IBS symptoms such as weight loss, diarrhea at night, rectal bleeding, iron deficiency anemia, unexplained vomiting, difficulty swallowing, or persistent pain that isn’t relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement.
You should see an IBS specialist if any of the following are true:
- Your doctor can’t find the cause of your pain.
- The gastroenterologist can’t find the cause of your pain.
- You’re treating the symptom of pain and haven’t found the cause.
- You get gas pain.
- You have abdominal pain or discomfort and don’t know why.
- You’ve been diagnosed with IBS.
- You suspect that you have IBS.
- Your pain is unpredictable.
- You’re tired of managing your condition.
- You want answers.
- You’re learning to just live with IBS.
Can IBS Cause Nausea?
Nausea frequently occurs in IBS, but generally isn’t mentioned as a part of IBS. Nausea with IBS stomach pain is relatively common. Some 20 percent of IBS patients complain of feeling nauseated, and many of those also experience vomiting.
Nausea is an upper digestive tract symptom that signifies the digestive tract is unhappy. Triggers for nausea are usually the same as they are for other symptoms of IBS, as is finding its cause. Tell your doctor if you have nausea with your IBS stomach pain. If they can’t help you find the reason, you don’t have to lose hope. When we treat our patients, their nausea also resolves along with their IBS.
If you experience nausea or pain, and it does not go away within a few hours, then you should seek help and go to the ER. If nothing remarkable shows up that explains your problem, be sure to follow-up with an IBS specialist.
Monitoring Other IBS Symptoms that Often Come with Stomach Pain
IBS pain often comes with a multitude of other symptoms, which is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. If you ignore or cover up your symptoms and don’t address the cause, it’s like painting over a rotten board. It’s not going to last very long, and underneath things are only going to get worse. You’ll still have to fix the issue, and the longer you wait, the more work you’ll have to do.
There are four major symptoms to look for when diagnosing IBS. Those include diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and gas and bloating. Read our comprehensive descriptions of IBS symptoms to learn more about these signs. Other IBS symptoms (listed in alphabetical order) to be aware of include:
- Anxiety and Depression: In a large study of 94,000 men and women, people with IBS were over 50 percent more likely to have an anxiety disorder, and over 70 percent were more likely to have a mood disorder, such as depression. This isn’t surprising because having IBS will cause anxiety or depression in most people. The good news is that once their IBS is gone, so is most of their anxiety and depression.
- Belching: Gas production in the stomach results in belching, which is not an unusual occurrence in IBS patients. The symptom results from food not being properly digested in the upper region of the digestive tract.
- Blood in the Stool: It’s usually a sign there something else is going on other than IBS or in addition to it. However, some of our patients have blood in their stool occasionally. You always want to see a doctor when you have blood in your stool. Blood can be bright red, or it can be very dark, depending on how far it has traveled in your digestive tract.
- Cramping: A common ailment with IBS stomach or abdominal pain, the cramping may be causing your pain, or it may occur in conjunction with your pain.
- Fatigue and Difficulty Sleeping: About half of all people with IBS have fatigue. Another study of 50 men and women found that those with IBS slept about an hour longer yet felt less refreshed in the morning than those without IBS. For more information about IBS and fatigue, visit our webpage on IBS and exhaustion.
- Feeling Sick to Your Stomach: Having an upset stomach is another sign that you aren’t digesting food well.
- Food Intolerance: Up to 70 percent of individuals with IBS report that particular foods trigger their symptoms. Your IBS may be causing a reaction to foods, or a reaction to foods may be causing your IBS. It’s important to identify the difference, and an IBS specialist can help you do that. Certain foods can trigger IBS symptoms, but you can also learn more about food intolerances on our page on food allergies and intolerances.
- Heartburn: We frequently see reflux and heartburn in patients with IBS pain. For more information on this topic, visit our page on heartburn.
- Looser and/or More Frequent Stools: Many people with IBS notice that their bowel movements are not normal but aren’t necessarily presenting as diarrhea or constipation. They may have pasty stools, or mucous in their stools, or have frequent or even urgent bowel movements even though they have a well-formed stool. If you are wondering if your digestion or bowel movements aren’t normal, read “What is Good Digestion?”
- Mixed Bowel Habit: Mixed or alternating between constipation and diarrhea affects about 20 percent of patients with IBS. This is a surprisingly common problem. In our experience, many patients are suffering from more than one cause or trigger simultaneously, resulting in unpredictable and alternating constipation and diarrhea.Vomiting: Some IBS patients experience nausea and vomiting. Vomiting isn’t always talked about with IBS, but when it is part of IBS, it responds well to IBS treatment.
Stomach/Abdominal Issues that Can Occur in People with IBS Pain
Some issues arise in people who are also experiencing IBS pain. Here are some conditions that may occur in people with IBS:
- Gallstones: Gallstones can cause severe abdominal pain, usually in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. Gallstones are usually treated by removing the gall bladder. People with this kind of pain usually visit the ER.
- Diverticulitis: Usually discovered during a colonoscopy and extremely painful, diverticulitis involves inflammation of small pockets that can develop in your colon. Read our page on diverticulitis for more information.
- Pancreatitis: This condition can cause symptoms that are similar to IBS. The pain may radiate to your back, come with a fever, and there’s often nausea and vomiting.
- Endometriosis: Another cause of abdominal pain, endometriosis occurs when tissue from the uterus grows outside the uterus. A gynecologist diagnoses and treats endometriosis.
- Stomach and Colon Cancer: These cancers can also cause abdominal pain. A gastroenterologist will diagnose these diseases during a colonoscopy or an upper endoscopy of the stomach.
IBS Treatments for Stomach Pain
There are many things we can do to treat IBS stomach pain. If you’ve seen a doctor and are still experiencing unbearable pain and dealing with unpredictable symptoms, it may be time to try implementing lifestyle changes and adjusting your diet. Here are some steps you can take:
- Identify and Avoid Foods or Drinks that Trigger Symptoms: Often easier said than done, but there are usually foods that will make your symptoms worse. Identify those foods, if possible. If it feels like everything triggers symptoms, then you’ll need to see a professional IBS specialist to help you sort it out.
- Change the Fiber in Your Diet: Different types of fiber can have different effects on your digestion. Visit our page on fiber for more information on this topic.
- Exercise Regularly: Studies have shown that exercise is good for IBS. We recognize that IBS can get in the way of your ability to exercise, so sometimes this can be a work in progress.
- Counseling: This is not to say that it’s all in your head. Usually it’s not, though stress and anxiety will make your IBS worse. Counseling can help you manage those better.
- Reduce Stress Levels: Find ways to manage and limit your stress, as it will help reduce the severity of your symptoms.
- Avoid Sorbitol and Aspartame: These artificial sweeteners are often found in sugar-free foods and are notorious for triggering IBS.
- Eat at the Same Time Every Day and Don’t Skip Meals: Developing consistency, even if they are very small meals, may help with digestion.
- Eat Slowly and Chew Your Food Well: This small change will help reduce the amount of energy that it takes the rest of your digestive tract to break down your food.
- Limit Alcohol Intake: Your digestive tract and alcohol are not friends. Alcohol has a major impact on your microbiome. If you’re using alcohol to manage pain, that isn’t a good idea either.
- Avoid Soda: Sodas are also terrible for your microbiome. Keep those microbes happy.
- Limit Intake of Certain Fruits and Vegetables: Don’t eat raw veggies of any kind, including salads. They are too difficult for an irritated digestive tract to digest. Also avoid apples, because the peel is hard to digest, and citrus fruits may also be an irritant.
- Limit Tea and Coffee Intake: Caffeinated drinks are hard on an irritated digestive tract.
- Drink Enough Fluids: It’s essential if you have IBS that you stay well-hydrated.
- Medications: Both over the counter and prescription medications may help minimize your symptoms while you’re working to find the cause of the problem. For more information about medication, visit our page on Drugs to Treat IBS.
What to Do if You Think Your Stomach Pains Have to Do With IBS
You definitely have IBS if you have had recurrent abdominal pain for at least six months, and you’ve seen your doctor and ruled out other conditions. You can also make the following lifestyle changes as your first take on IBS pains:
- Start a low-FODMAP diet. If this doesn’t help, then you need a customized diet created with the help of an IBS specialist.
- Try to reduce your stress.
- Drink lots of water.
- Take laxatives for temporary relief of constipation.
- Try probiotic supplements. If they don’t help or make you worse, then you’ll need the help of an IBS specialist on the use of probiotics.
- Keep a journal of foods and symptoms, include foods you eat that don’t give you abdominal pain.
Get Help for Your Stomach Pain at the IBS Treatment Center
In the United States, around 10 to 15 percent of adults have IBS, while it affects between 10 to 20 percent of people worldwide, with some studies saying it’s as high as 42 percent. Those suffering from IBS should know that the stomach pain that can accompany IBS is treatable.
The stomach pain treatments mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. For a long-term resolution to your abdominal or stomach pain, contact us at the IBS Treatment Center. The treatments mentioned here may give you some temporary relief, but they will not cure your pain. In our clinic, we go much deeper to find and treat the root cause.
At the IBS Treatment Center we base treatments on an extensive investigative process based on having helped over 10,000 IBS patients successfully. Every patient is unique, and their treatment needs to be unique to be successful.
Schedule an appointment to find out if you have IBS and how we can treat it.
IBS Treatment Center Helping Patients Overcome IBS Pain
Aaron Reich of Seattle, Washington life has improved dramatically. Prior to visiting the IBS Treatment Center, Aaron was in constant pain, unable to leave his house for fear of having a bout of diarrhea with no bathroom in sight. Unwilling to even eat simple meals, Aaron didn’t think he could ever resolve his situation and get his life back.
After seeing multiple doctors and specialists, who dismissed his pain he eventually took his mother’s advice and tried treatment at IBS Treatment Center. It’s been five months and Aaron is in control of his life.
Aaron says, “It was the decision that has made my life enjoyable again. The fact stays the same: that my life is immeasurably better. As the months go by, it’s only getting easier.”
Renee’s problems with stomach pain and constipation started four years ago. The first year wasn’t that bad, but then it got worse. She would go over a week being constipated and dealing with on/off stomach pain/nausea.
The third year was the worst for Renee. She found herself visiting an ER every other week for stomach pain that was so severe she couldn’t even walk. Eventually, the doctor’s removed Renee’s gallbladder, but the pain and problems never ceased. After seeing six different GI doctors, who all told her that she had to live with the pain, she began to think the pain and discomfort was all in her head.
One day Renee’s husband suggested she go to the IBS Treatment Center. “I thought he was crazy,” says Renee. “We live in Wisconsin so to take a trip across the states to Washington was out of the question. I figured if the doctors around my area can’t fix me, why travel and have the same response and tests.”
At that point, Renee had taken every test possible, so she researched the IBS Treatment center and decided to give it a try. A year later, Renee says she feels great and finally has her life back — something she never thought was possible.
Today, people don’t have to travel to receive treatment from the IBS Treatment Center, we now offer a telemedicine video conference option so that you can work with the doctor from anywhere you might be.
Brick, New Jersey
For approximately two years, Dennis had undergone every medical test, but doctors couldn’t find the cause of any of his abdominal pain and diarrhea. Dennis even had to take a medical leave of absence from college and began seeing a hypnotherapist and an acupuncturist to alleviate his symptoms.
After visiting and working with the IBS Treatment Center, Dennis was able to return to college and complete his course work with a grade point average of 4.0.
“Without your help this would have been impossible. I feel my life is back on track and I will be able to pursue my educational goals,” shares Dennis.