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Severe Stomach Pain: When to Go to the ER

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Updated April 03, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Severe Stomach Pain: When to Go to the ER Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

It can be pretty scary when you start to experience severe stomach pain. It can also be hard to know what you are supposed to do. Do you need a doctor? Should you call 911 for an ambulance or other medical assistance? Have someone drive you to the ER? This information with help you to make the safest, smartest decision. Remember to err on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to seek immediate medical attention. When in doubt, make the call.

Note: This article is in reference to stomach pain. If you are experiencing severe pain in your upper torso, see:

When to Call an Ambulance or Go to the Emergency Room For Stomach Pain

When a person is having a medical emergency, time is of the essence. If you have any of the following symptoms, get to the emergency room. An ambulance should be called if you are alone, if you think immediate EMT assistance is necessary, or if you think that your health could take a turn for the worse during the time it will take you to travel to the nearest hospital.

Get help immediately if your severe stomach pain is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • Abdomen that is extremely hard or tender to the touch
  • Bleeding that cannot be stopped
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Inability to have a bowel movement accompanied by vomiting
  • Pain in neck, shoulder or between shoulder blades
  • Unable to stop vomiting
  • Vision changes

Other reasons you might need immediate medical care for severe stomach pain:

  • You have recently been injured in your abdomen.
  • You are undergoing cancer treatment.
  • You are pregnant or think you might be pregnant.

For a full list of symptoms for which you should seek emergency care, see:

When You Should Call Your Doctor

If you have decided that your symptoms do not warrant a visit to the emergency room, you may still be wondering if you should let your doctor know what is happening. If you have any of the following symptoms, it is important that you contact your doctor in a timely manner:

  • Burning or urgent urination symptoms
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than five days
  • Fever that is above 100 or that doesn't go away in three days
  • Significant loss of appetite
  • Pain worsens or doesn't get better within one or two days
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Vaginal bleeding that is excessive or lasts more than is typical

Self Care for Non-Emergency Stomach Pain

If you have decided that you are not deathly ill, you are still faced with the fact that you are not well. Here are are some steps to take:

  • Limit yourself to only clear liquids for a few hours.

  • If you experience vomiting and/or diarrhea, stick with the BRAT diet and other mild foods until your symptoms start to subside.

  • Avoid foods that are tough on the digestive system, such as fried foods, spicy foods and drinks containing alcohol or caffeine.

  • Try an over the counter antacid or gas-relieving product.

  • Try to have a bowel movement. Sometimes the cause of sudden sharp abdominal pains is trapped gas. Having a bowel movement may help to get the intestines moving so that the gas can make its way out of your system.

  • Use a hot water bottle or heating pad. This may help to ease your pain, and if nothing else, can be quite soothing. Place the pad on your abdomen for half hour intervals, ans be sure to use a towel under the pad to protect your skin.

Tips for Soothing Your Pain

Anxiety about what is possibly wrong will enhance your experience of the pain. Here are some things you can do to help to reduce your worry:

Educate yourself about your digestive system: Take a look at some pictures of your digestive system to figure out what's inside where it hurts:

Educate yourself about the possible causes of your pain: This article from the Mayo Clinic does a nice job of explaining possible causes based on where your pain is located:

Reassure yourself: Keep in mind that our bodies sometimes do funky things. As stated above, trapped gas can be quite painful, yet does not mean that anything terrible is wrong with you. Also keep in mind that if there was something more serious going on it is likely that your body will let you know. If any of the above scary symptoms do not develop, you are most likely experiencing some kind of temporary problem that your body will work out over time.

The following articles were written to address chronic IBS pain, but contain helpful tips for dealing with temporary abdominal pain:

Essential Reading from Dr. Bolen, Your IBS Guide:

Sources:

"Abdominal Pain" Medline Plus Accessed October 10,2012.

"About Emergencies" Emergency Care for You: Website of the American College of Emergency Physicians Accessed October 10,2012.

O’Connor, A. & McCarberg, B. "A New Look at Heat Treatment for Pain Disorders, Part 2" American Pain Society Bulletin 2005 15.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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