Bloated, uncomfortable, or suffering from sickness and diarrhoea? We look at the 7 most common stomach complaints.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Becky Fletcher
From diarrhoea to indigestion, gastrointestinal problems are a normal part of life and most of us suffer from tummy pain at one time or another. But when is belly ache just something you ate and when is it more serious?
GP Dr Roger Henderson identifies the seven most common types of tummy pain, including symptoms, causes and treatment tips:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is defined by the presence of a group of symptoms which are present over a period of time, and affects around 1 in 5 of the population at some point in their lives.
‘IBS is a painful long-term condition which can have a big impact on day-to-day life,’ says Dr Henderson. ‘It’s important to understand your triggers and how to deal with a flare-up so you can manage symptoms effectively.’
- IBS symptoms
Abdominal pain and discomfort, diarrhoea, constipation as well as bloating of the abdomen.
- IBS causes
The cramping pain and discomfort of IBS is caused by muscle spasms in the bowel. Experts don’t know exactly why the condition develops, although they do agree that there are some things that can trigger symptoms and make them worse. Triggers for IBS vary between individuals but stress, dietary factors and some medicines are the common triggers, often in combination.
- IBS treatments
To ease IBS pain, Dr Henderson recommends the following:
- For some people eating smaller, more frequent meals can help as well as limiting your intake of alcohol, caffeine and foods high in fat.
- Exercising for at least 20 minutes a day will not only help to keep your stress levels down but also keep the bowels moving normally.
- It’s also advisable to have an over-the counter remedy such as an antispasmodic to hand just in case symptoms become particularly painful.
- Antispasmodics, like Buscopan IBS Relief, can be taken at the first sign of a flare up and quickly work to ease spasms in the intestines at the root cause of pain – other painkillers are less effective at targeting this type of pain.
- Trapped wind
Trapped wind is a common tummy complaint, often caused by eating certain foods.
- Trapped wind symptoms
The typical symptoms of trapped wind in the bowels include stomach cramps, burping, bloating, flatulence, nausea, vomiting and pain when bending over, lying down or with physical exercise.
- Trapped wind causes
It is normal to have gas in your intestine and we all produce several litres of gas a day through the normal processes of digestion. Some of this is reabsorbed into the bloodstream and eventually breathed out, with the remainder being expelled as wind.
One possible cause of excess gas may be swallowing too much air when eating, drinking or talking. Certain foods and fizzy drinks can also contribute to this. Smoking can also make you swallow more air and some people also swallow air as a nervous reaction.
Excess gas can also be caused by bacteria in the colon producing too much gas when they break down food. Foods containing complex carbohydrates, for example vegetables such as beans, cabbages and Brussels sprouts, are difficult for the human body to digest and are broken down by gas-producing bacteria instead. Foods that contain sorbitol, an artificial sweetener, can lead to similar problems.
- Trapped wind treatments
To ease trapped wind symptoms, Dr Henderson recommends the following:
- Cut down on foods known to cause wind and bloating such as beans, onions, broccoli, cabbage, sprouts and cauliflower but make sure you still eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
- Try avoiding high fat foods and eggs as these can produce bad smelling gas as well as refined and sugary foods, especially those containing the artificial sweetener sorbitol.
- Keep hot spicy food to a minimum, particularly if you are not used to it.
- Try not to swallow too much air.
- Don’t talk and eat at the same time, sit down to eat (sitting upright and not slumped over), stop chewing gum and chew with your mouth closed.
- You should also try to reduce the amount of fizzy drinks you consume and avoid drinking from a straw as this can make you swallow air.
- You should also avoid sitting for long periods.
- If you’re sitting at work, take regular breaks (at least every hour) to stretch the legs and abdomen.
- Try to take regular exercise to help improve your digestion, for example, it may help to go for a short walk after eating in order to move gas around.
- Gently, but firmly, massage the abdomen from right to left to release any trapped wind.
Constipation is largely due to your diet, but it also has psychological, physical, emotional and hormonal components, so it’s worth making an appointment with your GP.
- Constipation symptoms
The symptoms of constipation are infrequent bowel movements, hard, dry stools, difficulty or pain when defecating and swelling of the abdomen.
- Constipation causes
The cause of constipation can be down to diet. Not eating enough fibre such as fruit and vegetables and not drinking enough water can contribute to the condition. With a change in lifestyle, often comes a change in eating habits, which may be causing problems. Certain medications can have side effects which include constipation and it can also be a result of anxiety or depression.
- Constipation treatments
To ease constipation discomfort, Dr Henderson recommends the following:
- Try to eat foods high in fibre, including raw fruit and veg, pulses and whole grains.
- If you’re experiencing symptoms of constipation, eating oranges at least once a day may be helpful as the citric acid they contain is a natural laxative.
- Drink at least eight glasses of water or juice a day and exercise regularly.
- Whenever possible go to the lavatory as soon as the urge strikes, or take a laxative if necessary.
- Crohn’s disease
Crohn’s disease is a condition that causes the lining of the digestive system to become inflamed.
- Crohn’s disease symptoms
The symptoms include unintended weight loss, blood and mucus in stools, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and extreme fatigue. If there is a problem within the immune system, this could cause the body to attack healthy bacteria in the gut. An infection may trigger a similar response from the immune system.
- Crohn’s disease causes
Genetics and the environment (Crohn’s is more common in westernised countries such as the UK) have also been linked to the disease.
- Crohn’s disease treatments
To ease Crohn’s disease symptoms, Dr Henderson recommends the following:
- The treatment for Crohn’s comes in the form of medication which aims to reduce the inflammation and treat the symptoms.
- Many people with Crohn’s find that dairy can make symptoms worse so avoiding this may reduce them.
- Aloe Vera has anti-inflammatory properties and some find this can help ease the symptoms when taken on a regular basis.
- Stress may exacerbate symptoms too so limiting stress and adopting relaxation techniques may also help.
- Coeliac disease
Coeliac disease is a well-defined, serious illness where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten. This causes damage to the lining of the gut and means that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food.
- Coeliac disease symptoms
The symptoms of coeliac can present as mild or severe and most often include diarrhoea, making it very difficult to separate from other tummy issues.
- Coeliac disease causes
Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease.
- Coeliac disease treatments
To ease coeliac disease symptoms, Dr Henderson recommends the following:
‘The most common symptom of coeliac disease is diarrhoea, caused by the body not being able to fully absorb nutrients known as malabsorption,’ says Dr Henderson.
‘This can result in stools containing high levels of fat, make them foul smelling, greasy and frothy. Unfortunately there is no cure for coeliac disease yet, but switching to a gluten-free diet will reduce the severity of symptoms and prevent serious complications in the future.’
Gastroenteritis vomiting bug can be a very unpleasant sickness and diarrhoea bug, but try to avoid seeing your GP as it’s extremely contagious.
- Gastroenteritis symptoms
The main symptoms of gastroenteritis are sudden, watery diarrhoea, feeling sick, vomiting, and a mild fever. Some people also have other symptoms such as a loss of appetite, an upset stomach, aching limbs and headaches. Symptoms typically appear up to a day after becoming infected and can last a few days but can sometimes last longer.
- Gastroenteritis causes
The most common cause is a viral infection such as with the norovirus and adenovirus. Food poisoning can also cause it, such as food infected with Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. Coli. Meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, shellfish and parboiled rice are the most commonly affected.
- Gastroenteritis treatments
To ease gastroenteritis discomfort, Dr Henderson recommends the following:
- Wash your hands and the surfaces you come into contact with regularly as it’s likely to spread to those around you.
- If you are concerned or need advice call NHS 111 or your GP surgery.
- Otherwise with plenty of fluids and rest it should clear up on its own within a week.
- Stomach ulcer
An ulcer is potentially dangerous so it’s important to look out for the warning signs. These include difficulty swallowing or regurgitation, persistent nausea and vomiting, vomiting blood or vomit with the appearance of ‘coffee grounds’, black or tar-like stools, unintended weight loss, anaemia (paleness and fatigue) and sudden, severe and incapacitating abdominal pains. If any of these occur, seek medical advice.
- Stomach ulcer symptoms
A stomach ulcer is very different from a stomach ache so the two should not be confused. Symptoms of a stomach ulcer can vary greatly from person to person. Many people never realise that they have an ulcer, others feel pain or a burning sensation in their upper abdomen.
The symptoms are often described as indigestion, heartburn, hunger pangs or dyspepsia. Some sufferers find that eating actually helps settle their discomfort for a while, others find it makes them worse. Citrus drinks and fruit and spicy or smoked foods can all make the pain worse.
- Stomach ulcer causes
Until the 1980s it was often thought that stress and spicy food directly caused ulcers but it is now known that almost all patients with ulcers have a bacterial infection of the stomach called Helicobacter pylori. Other causes include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen, smoking and heavy alcohol intake.
- Stomach ulcer treatments
To ease stomach ulcer symptoms, Dr Henderson recommends the following:
- Stop smoking.
- Take paracetamol instead of aspirin.
- Reduce your alcohol intake and try to keep stress levels to a minimum.
- Avoid taking non-steroidal tablets (NSAIDs) for arthritis or pain control whenever possible.