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Experts say abdominal pain during meals can be caused by a number of factors. Westend61/Getty Images
  • A new survey indicates that about 11 percent of people worldwide experience abdominal pain during meals.
  • Experts say the discomfort can be caused by a number of factors, from twisted bowels to tumors to conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • They note that frequent abdominal pain can affect quality of life as well as affect a person’s mental health.

About 11 percent of people around the world experience abdominal pain frequently when eating.

Research presented at the United European Gastroenterology Week found that in a survey of 50,000 people worldwide about 13 percent of women and 9 percent of men reported frequent abdominal pain while they eat meals.

People who experience meal-related abdominal pain more frequently experience other gastrointestinal symptoms and more regularly fulfill criteria for disorders of the gut brain interactions [DGBIs, formerly known as functional gut disorders], including common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), bloating, and abdominal distention,” Esther Colomier, author of the study and a joint PhD researcher at KU Leuven in Belgium and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, said in a press release.

The study took data from 54,127 people living across 26 countries. Respondents were asked if they experienced abdominal pain and whether the discomfort was related to meals.

The study found 30 percent of the people who said they had pain during meals also experienced lower gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation.

Bloating and distension of the abdomen was experienced as often as once a week in people who had frequent pain when eating. That’s compared with 2 to 3 days a month of bloating and distension in people who reported only occasional pain during meals. People who didn’t report pain during meals experienced on average one day a month of discomfort.

Dr. Walter Park, an associate professor of medicine in gastroenterology at Stanford University in California, said the findings of the study aren’t surprising.

“As a gastroenterologist the most common complaint we see in our speciality is something involving abdominal pain and a common question we often ask the patient as we try to better understand the nature of the pain is its association with meals because that can give certain diagnostic clues,” Park told Healthline.

Pain during meals could be due to a number of factors.

“Excessive gas and bloating due to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and food intolerance can cause pain,” Dr. Florence M. Hosseini-Aslinia, a gastroenterologist at the University of Kansas Health System, told Healthline. “Hypersensitivity to normal gas-related distention of the gastrointestinal tract, often seen in patients with functional dyspepsia and irritable bowel syndrome, can also cause pain when eating.”

“Conditions that merit medical interventions should always be considered,” she added. “Those include but are not limited to gastroparesis [or slow stomach], inflammation in the gut or inflammatory bowel disease [Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis], scarring associated with inflammatory bowel disease, and gastrointestinal cancer, causing obstruction.”

She says it is important that people experiencing abdominal pain when eating consult a doctor to rule out more serious conditions such as gut inflammation, a twisted bowel, narrowing of the gastrointestinal tract due to scarring, or tumors.

“Experiencing pain during eating or right after eating is certainly abnormal and merits medical evaluation,” Hosseini-Aslinia said. “However, the good news is that most young individuals with pain after eating are being diagnosed with benign conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, or food intolerance, all of which may respond well to dietary modifications and even over-the-counter medications such as peppermint and simethicone.”

A recent survey of 6,000 people across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Mexico found that gas-related symptoms resulted in higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression and poorer quality of life.

In the study about pain during meals, the researchers found that more than a third of people who reported frequent pain with meals also reported higher rates of anxiety and depression than people who reported experiencing only occasional pain or no pain with meals.

Along with addressing gastrointestinal problems, experts say treating mental health conditions that could be contributing to symptoms is also important.

“Once a serious condition has been ruled out, eat as healthy as possible, treat any underlying [gastrointestinal] or psychological conditions that may be present. If a serious condition has been ruled out, exercise and stress reduction are important if a condition like IBS is suspected,” Dr. Craig Gluckman, a gastroenterologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Healthline.

Keeping a food diary can be beneficial in identifying what foods may be triggering pain during meals. Park said being mindful of portion sizes is also important.

Hosseini-Aslinia said the impact of pain during meals shouldn’t be dismissed as quality of life can be severely reduced due to these symptoms.

“Eating is not only the main and the best way to receive nutrients, it is also a pleasure of life and a way to socialize with friends, families, and co-workers,” she explained. “This issue has such a huge impact on daily activities that sometimes the life of individuals experiencing abdominal pain with eating mainly revolves around being able to secure food that doesn’t trigger pain.”

“This problem makes traveling and enjoying restaurant food quite difficult,” she added. “Sometimes, people who experience pain after eating elect to not eat outside the house and fast until they return home, which may result in social isolation.”