Gas in your stomach and digestive system is relatively normal, and usually released through belching or flatulence. But when excess gas can't escape in these ways, it gets trapped, and that can become a painful problem.
Read more: The Effects of Intestinal Gas and Bloating
From Whence Gas?
"Gas has both external and internal causes," says Neil Gupta, MD, an associate professor of gastroenterology and regional director of digestive health at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. "External causes come from swallowing air while you are eating and drinking. Internal causes come from gas that is produced when bacteria in your colon breaks down food during digestion."
According to the Mayo Clinic, swallowed air is the primary cause of increased gas in your stomach. It can result from a variety of factors, including eating too fast or gulping your food, drinking through a straw or drinking carbonated beverages, like beer or soda, as well as from chewing gum, taking fiber supplements or even consuming food and drinks that contain artificial sweeteners.
Gas in your colon forms when bacteria ferment undigested carbs like fiber and some starches and sugars, Mayo explains, noting that you're likely to experience more gas the more high-fiber foods — beans, fruits, and whole grains, for instance — that you eat. While bacteria consume some of that gas, the remainder is released in flatulence, something that normally occurs 14 to 23 times a day, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
When Gas Gets Trapped
"Any condition that causes your digestive system to slow down increases the risk for trapped gas," says Dr. Gupta. "These include common conditions like chronic constipation and diabetes."
Other conditions that may lead to trapped gas, according to the Mayo Clinic, include chronic intestinal diseases (diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease), food intolerances like lactose- or gluten-intolerance, small bowel bacterial overgrowth and constipation.
Gas that gets trapped at bends in your colon (called flexures) can lead to a chronic disorder known as splenic-flexure syndrome, Johns Hopkins notes.
"Trapped gas can cause cramping or bloating anywhere along your digestive system," Dr. Gupta says. For instance, "gas pain can be felt in your upper back when gas is trapped in a part of your colon in the back of your abdomen, close to your back, called the retroperitoneum," he says.
Back Pain: Gas or Other Condition?
"Although gas is a common cause of back pain, there are other more serious causes that need to be considered when you have belly pain that is felt in your back," says Dr. Gupta. "These include acute pancreatitis, gallstones and duodenal ulcer."
According to the Mayo Clinic, acute pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, a long gland in your upper abdomen situated behind your stomach. Symptoms may include pain in your upper abdomen that radiates to your back, pain that worsens after eating, fever, tenderness in your belly, nausea and vomiting or a rapid pulse.
Gallstones are defined by Mayo Clinic as digestive fluid, called bile, that thickens into hardened deposits in your gallbladder duct, causing potential blockage. While gallstones can be asymptomatic, a blockage can result in such symptoms as rapidly increasing pain in your upper right or central abdomen, pain between your shoulder blades or in your right shoulder and nausea or vomiting.
A duodenal ulcer "is an ulcer that forms in the first part of your small intestine," says Dr. Gupta. "It can cause burning pain that your feel between your sternum and your belly button. You may also feel pain in your back."
Kidney stones are another potential cause of both stomach and back pain, says Mayo Clinic. They can trigger severe fluctuating pain on your side and back (below your ribs) or pain that fans out to your abdomen and groin, as well as pain when you pee. You may feel a strong need to pass urine more often or you may urinate in smaller amounts, and your urine may be blood-tinged, cloudy or putrid. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, or fever and chills.
Any time you have severe or persistent pain or gas pains that include blood in your stool, constipation or diarrhea, a change in bowel habits, nausea, vomiting or weight loss, Mayo Clinic recommends that you speak with your doctor.
As Johns Hopkins notes, the symptoms sparked by gas resemble symptoms for other health issues, making it important to work with your doctor to get an appropriate diagnosis.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: “Gas and Gas Pains”
- Neil Gupta, MD, associate professor of gastroenterology, regional director, digestive health, Loyola University Medical Center, Maywood, Illinois
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Gas in the Digestive Tract"
- Mayo Clinic: “Pancreatitis”
- Mayo Clinic: “Gallstones”
- Mayo Clinic: “Kidney Stones”