While it's not uncommon to experience a bout of abdominal discomfort after eating, especially if you've eaten a large meal, severe abdominal pain post-nosh is not so ordinary and may be cause for concern.
If the pain is severe and persistent, seek immediate medical attention to rule out or potentially prevent more adverse health issues, says Mir Ali, MD, general and bariatric surgeon at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
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"The stomach itself can be the source of pain if there is an ulcer or even just inflammation alone," says Peyton Berookim, MD, a double board-certified gastroenterologist in Los Angeles and director of the Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California.
Once you've ruled out a benign cause like simply eating a little more than normal, learn about 11 conditions that might cause severe abdominal pain after eating, plus tips for when you should consider talking to a doctor.
Seek immediate medical attention if you have severe pain that doesn't improve, especially if you have other symptoms such as weakness, nausea, vomiting, tar-like or bloody stools, dizziness, loss of consciousness or a high fever.
Why Do I Get Sharp Pain in My Stomach After Eating?
There are several organs that can be the source of pain in the abdomen, including the gallbladder, pancreas, stomach and small and large intestines. For this reason, severe abdominal pain after eating could have a wide range of causes that need to be evaluated through a physical exam.
Below are some reasons why you might feel sharp pain after eating.
1. Peptic Ulcers
Peptic ulcers develop when the protective lining of the stomach or first part of the small intestine — called the duodenum — provides inadequate protection against the acid produced by the stomach, resulting in an open sore (or ulcer) in the wall of the stomach or duodenum, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Peptic ulcer pain is usually located in the upper-left or upper-central part of the abdomen. It is typically a sharp, burning or boring pain that sometimes travels through to the back.
With stomach ulcers, the pain often begins during or shortly after eating. With duodenal ulcers, the pain usually improves with a meal but returns two to three hours after eating.
Peptic ulcers can bleed, producing tar-like or bloody stools and vomit that looks like coffee grounds. When severe, an ulcer can extend through the entire wall of the intestine or stomach, producing a hole. This perforation often causes severe, generalized abdominal pain and symptoms of shock, such as weakness, dizziness or loss of consciousness.
2. Intestinal Obstruction
An intestinal obstruction is often a blockage of stool that keeps food and liquid from passing through your colon. Causes can be adhesions that form after surgery, hernias, colon cancer or certain conditions like Crohn's disease or diverticulitis, per the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms are typically loss of appetite, abdominal cramping that comes and goes in the mid to lower stomach, constipation, vomiting and swelling. You may feel this abdominal pain immediately after eating. This is a serious condition that, when left untreated, can be life-threatening.
It's important to see your doctor or go to the emergency room if you have the symptoms of intestinal obstruction, per the Mayo Clinic.
Gallstones are hardened deposits of bile (or digestive fluid) that can form in your gallbladder, the small, golf-ball-sized organ on the right side of your abdomen.
They are most common in people in their 40s who have had children, according to the Mayo Clinic, but other risk factors include having overweight or obesity, eating a high-fat and/or high-cholesterol diet, being sedentary, having diabetes or taking oral contraceptives or other drugs that contain estrogen. Those who are Indigenous or of Hispanic descent are also more likely to develop this condition.
Gallstones typically produce a cramping sensation in the upper-right area of the abdomen that usually occurs within several hours after eating a meal, especially a meal containing fatty foods, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Gallstone pain can last for just a few minutes or for as long as a few hours and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and pain that may travel around the right side of the body to the back or right shoulder blade. It may even be felt in the right shoulder.
If gallstones block the exit of the gallbladder, they can lead to acute inflammation of the gallbladder, called cholecystitis, which can cause severe and persistent abdominal pain, severe nausea, vomiting and a high fever. Gallstones may also block the tubes exiting from the liver or pancreas, producing inflammation of these tubes and organs.
"A diagnosis is typically made with an ultrasound of the abdomen and treatment involves the removal of the gallbladder," Dr. Ali says.
4. Mesenteric Artery Ischemia
Mesenteric ischemia occurs when cholesterol plaques develop within the arteries supplying the intestines, reducing blood flow through these blood vessels, according to the National Library of Medicine.
When you eat, the cells in your intestines increase their activity level to help digest the food, which requires additional oxygen-carrying blood. When the intestinal arteries contain plaque, eating a meal can cause pain if the blood supply is not adequate to meet the extra needs of these cells.
Abdominal pain caused by mesenteric ischemia is typically severe and generalized, and it's often accompanied by diarrhea, nausea, vomiting or flatulence. It tends to occur 15 to 60 minutes after eating and lasts for up to two hours. Mesenteric ischemia pain is often accompanied by weight loss and fear of eating because of the pain it causes.
Chronic mesenteric ischemia is usually caused by atherosclerosis, according to the Society for Vascular Surgery. Risk factors for this condition include sex assigned at birth (more common in males), smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, lack of physical activity and stress.
There are several tests your doctor can perform to diagnose this hardening of the arteries. In severe cases, you may need surgery.
Sometimes, the colon can develop small bulging patches called diverticula — a condition known as diverticulosis. When these pouches become inflamed or infected, it becomes a condition called diverticulitis, per the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms typically include severe abdominal pain, fever, chills, diarrhea and blood in the stool, and the pain is typically localized to the left lower quadrant, according to Dr. Berookim.
"The air pockets can be formed due to lack of fiber in the diet," he says.
If you have diverticulitis and your case is mild, your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics. If your case is severe, you may need urgent surgery to prevent additional complications like abscesses, bowel perforation or infection, says internal medicine, gastroenterology and hepatology physician Rusha Modi, MD.
If you suspect you have diverticulitis but otherwise feel well, Dr. Modi suggests scheduling a visit with your doctor. If you have a fever, severe pain or are unable to hold down any food, you may need to visit urgent care or the emergency room.
Though a frequent cause of this condition in the U.S. is alcohol misuse, it is not always the culprit. Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can also be triggered by gallstones and, sometimes, the cause cannot be identified, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Pancreatic pain feels like severe upper abdominal pain that can radiate to the back. It's typically brought on by eating and slowly gets worse. Other symptoms include a swollen and tender abdomen, nausea, fever, vomiting and an increased heart rate.
Lab tests and computed tomography as well as radiographic imaging can be used to make a proper diagnosis. Immediate care is required, as the condition can have life-threatening complications if left untreated.
Treatment can vary from giving your digestive system a break (by limiting food intake) to surgery, depending on the severity of the disease, Dr. Ali says.
7. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a condition that affects the stomach and intestinal tract. It's a chronic condition that causes cramping and pain in the lower stomach, bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation, per the Mayo Clinic.
IBS is a condition largely connected to the brain. The brain sends signals to the intestines to contract, and the nerves in the digestive tract can also become overactive. Food and stress are the two biggest triggers for an IBS attack, per the Mayo Clinic.
If you have IBS and abdominal pain after eating, it could be due to certain trigger foods such as wheat, dairy, citrus fruits, beans, spicy foods, greasy foods or carbonated drinks. However, it's difficult to pinpoint trigger foods without a doctor's help.
IBS pain after eating can start shortly after a meal and may improve after a bowel movement, but not always, according to Franciscan Health.
8. Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is another possible cause of severe abdominal pain after eating. This is a chronic condition in which your immune system responds to any gluten you ingest by damaging your small intestine, Dr. Berookim says.
If you have celiac disease, you may experience bloating and pain after eating meals containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
But everyone is affected differently by the condition, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Other symptoms may include diarrhea, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, bone or joint pain, headaches, irritability and depression.
As far as causes, the condition only happens to people who have particular genes. Up to 20 percent of people with celiac disease have a close relative who is also affected.
There is no cure for celiac disease, but it can be managed long-term by avoiding foods that contain gluten.
9. Lactose Intolerance
Similar to celiac disease, though typically less symptomatic, lactose intolerance usually produces pain and diarrhea after eating a meal containing lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products.
"It is not an allergy but rather a deficiency in the enzyme that breaks down lactose," Dr. Berookim says.
Lactose intolerance is sometimes genetic, or it can be caused by injury or surgery involving the small intestine, according to the Mayo Clinic. It typically appears in adulthood, and it's most common in people of African, Indigenous, Asian or Hispanic descent.
If you think you might be lactose intolerant, consider cutting out dairy products to see if you experience a positive change in symptoms after eating, or see your doctor about getting tests done.
10. Food Poisoning
Food poisoning can cause severe abdominal pain after eating contaminated food. The most common symptoms include stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It can take hours or days to begin feeling symptoms of food poisoning, depending on the bacteria or virus you ingested. Food poisoning can come from undercooked meats, shellfish, unpasteurized milk or contaminated water.
Symptoms typically go away between 48 hours and three days. Visit your doctor or the emergency room if symptoms worsen or persist, you see blood in your vomit or stool or you're dehydrated, per the CDC.
11. Binge Eating Disorder
When you overeat, your digestive system takes longer to break down and pass food through your intestinal tract. This can cause abdominal pain and cramping after you eat. You may also feel heartburn, gastroesphoageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux when you overeat.
Sometimes overeating can be a symptom of binge-eating disorder, an eating disorder where you consume unusually large amounts of food and feel unable to stop, per the Mayo Clinic.
This pain can last for days after the overeating episode. Treatment for binge-eating disorder involves counseling and a support system that encourages nutritious, balanced eating habits, per the Mayo Clinic.
How Do I Know if My Stomach Pain Is Serious?
While sharp stomach pain alone can be due to something as minor as gas, accompanying symptoms can point to a serious problem. These include vomiting, bloody stools or bloody vomit, the inability to poop, fever and pain in the neck, chest or shoulders, per Mount Sinai.
In this case, call your doctor and determine if you need to visit the emergency room.
You should also call your doctor if your pain lasts a week or longer, doesn't improve in 24 to 48 hours, if bloating lasts more than two days or if you have diarrhea for more than five days, per Mount Sinai.
How to Treat Sharp Pain in the Stomach
If you think your stomach pain is mild and related to digestion, there are a few remedies you can try at home, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
Even if your stomach pain is mild, however, the best treatment is to seek care from your doctor, especially if pain doesn't go away or gets worse, per the Cleveland Clinic. Your doctor may want to do diagnostic tests or prescribe medications to treat your condition.
Never make yourself throw up if you are experiencing severe abdominal pain, unless instructed to do so by a doctor or emergency room medical professional.
- Mayo Clinic: "Peptic Ulcer"
- Mayo Clinic: "Gallstones"
- National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: "Mesenteric Artery Ischemia"
- National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: "Abdominal Pain"
- Merck Manual Professional Version: "Peptic Ulcer Disease"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Mesenteric Ischemia"
- Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California: "Peyton P Berookim, MD, FACG"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms & Causes of Celiac Disease"
- Mayo Clinic: "Lactose intolerance"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Pancreatitis"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Abdominal Pain"
- Franciscan Health: "5 Signs of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- CDC: "Food Poisoning"
- Mayo Clinic: "Binge-eating disorder"
- Rusha Modi, MD
- Mayo Clinic: "Diverticulitis"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.