There are myriad culprits that can cause nausea — and the same goes for back pain. Both are fairly common and may not signal a serious problem.
However, experiencing the two symptoms together following a meal is less common, and could be cause for concern.
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When you have both back pain and nausea after eating, the most probable cause is a gastrointestinal problem, which accounts for approximately 30 million visits to the emergency room and outpatient clinics each year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Postprandial pain, or pain after eating, often gets dismissed as nothing more than a 'tummy ache,' but it could signal serious health problems, especially if it's long-lasting or recurrent," Amar Parikh, MD, a board-certified physician at Gwinnett Internal Medicine Associates in Dacula, Georgia, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
While nausea can be common, he notes that back pain after a meal is unusual and likely warrants medical attention and further evaluation.
If you're experiencing the two symptoms in conjunction with one another, and they happen to occur after eating, here are some potential causes, according to medical experts.
Most of us have experienced the nausea and overall body discomfort that can occur when we've eaten too much. This type of binge eating, which tends to occur more often at all-you-can-eat buffets or at meals during the holiday season, can cause the stomach to expand beyond normal parameters and induce abdominal bloating, explains Dr. Parikh.
"This also causes increased pressure on the back and, if you already have back pain or strain, can trigger a painful response in the muscles, ligaments, tendons and even bones," he says.
Additionally, if you're overweight or merely have bad posture, you may be placing added pressure on your back that can lead to pain, especially on your lumbar spine.
The gallbladder is a small organ that sits just below the liver and works with the liver to digest fats. Development of gallstones, or hardened deposits of digestive fluids in the gallbladder, may eventually cause the organ to become inflamed and radiate pain in the abdomen and back, according to the Mayo Clinic.
This type of gallbladder disease may also cause nausea and pain, especially after eating fatty foods, which can trigger a gallbladder attack a few hours later and, in severe cases, can lead to inflammation and persistent right upper abdominal pain.
"This pain can sometimes radiate to the upper back and is often described as gripping or gnawing," says Dr. Parikh. "Physicians should review your history, labs and imaging to determine whether you need acute or elective surgical management or watchful observation."
It is estimated that about 20 percent of the U.S. population has gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
GERD is most often characterized by burning pain in the chest or abdomen after eating, especially when the meal consisted of acidic or spicy foods.
"Acute, severe symptoms can mimic chest pain, as it can radiate to the left arm, shoulder blade and mid-back," notes Dr. Parikh. "If you're experiencing GERD, your physician will likely recommend different types of acid-suppressive therapy based on the severity of your symptoms."
4. Gastric Ulcer
A gastric or peptic ulcer is a rupture or break in the lining of the stomach.
Normally the stomach lining is strong enough to resist its highly acidic contents, but if an ulcer develops, you might experience stomach pain, nausea and back pain, according to MedlinePlus.
Acidic foods and medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen, may increase the pain associated with gastric ulcer. Doctors most commonly treat gastric ulcer with antibiotics and medications that decrease the release of acid into the stomach to allow the tissues to heal.
Read more: What to Eat and Not to Eat When You Have an Ulcer
5. Duodenal Ulcer
A duodenal ulcer is an open sore in the intestines, usually at the top of the large intestine or duodenum, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Pain, including abdominal or radiating back pain in the midsection, may occur several hours after a meal has passed through the stomach into the intestines.
Doctors generally treat intestinal ulcers in the same way as gastric ulcers, with antibiotics and anti-acid drugs. Left untreated, it may rupture and require surgical intervention.
Inflammation of the pancreas causes persistent and severe abdominal pain that can sometimes radiate to the back, according to Dr. Parikh — and nausea accompanies 90 percent of cases of acute pancreatitis. For this reason, it is the leading gastrointestinal cause of hospitalization in the U.S.
"Pancreatitis is often triggered by alcoholism or gallstones, but sometimes, the cause cannot be identified," he says. "History, labs and computed tomography or a CT scan can be used to make the diagnosis."
Immediate care in hospital is required for pancreatitis, as this condition can be life-threatening if left untreated.
- National Institutes of Health: MedlinePlus: "Peptic Ulcer"
- National Institutes of Health: MedlinePlus: "Pancreatitis"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2016 National Summary Tables"
- Gwinnett Medical Center: "Amar Parikh, MD"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Definition & Facts for GER & GERD"
- Mayo Clinic: "Peptic Ulcer"
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.