Whether you call it “heartburn” or its official name, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), this digestive disorder can cause pain, most often in the chest and throat.
GERD can also cause stomach pain, which is usually felt in the upper abdomen.
This article will take a closer look at GERD-related stomach pain, its treatment options, and what you can do to avoid stomach pain caused by GERD.
GERD occurs when the digestive acids and enzymes in your stomach don’t want to stay in your stomach. Instead, they flow back up into your esophagus toward your mouth. This is because a band of muscle around the base of your esophagus — called the lower esophageal sphincter — weakens and doesn’t seal properly.
The purpose of the lower esophageal sphincter is to open when food moves down your esophagus. This allows food to descend into your stomach. If this muscle is weakened, it can allow a backflow of stomach contents into your esophagus, irritating it and causing pain.
The most common symptoms of GERD are persistent acid reflux (heartburn) and regurgitation. Many people with GERD experience a burning sensation in the chest that’s caused by stomach acid rising up into the esophagus.
But pain in your upper abdomen, or stomach area, is another symptom of GERD. If you have stomach pain with GERD, you may feel a burning or gnawing pain in your stomach, or what some people describe as a “sour” stomach.
Eating certain foods — such as fatty, fried, spicy, and citrus foods — can trigger or exacerbate GERD. Being pregnant can also make it worse, as well as some behaviors, such as:
- lying down too soon after eating
- eating too much at once
- drinking soda, coffee, or alcohol
If your abdominal pain is mild, you might be able to wait it out for a few hours and see whether it resolves. If it worsens or continues for a longer period of time, contact your doctor or healthcare professional.
If you have chest pain or if you vomit blood, seek emergency care immediately.
Other symptoms of GERD
Besides heartburn, regurgitation, and stomach pain, other common symptoms of GERD can include:
Making certain lifestyle changes may help reduce your GERD symptoms, including stomach pain. For instance, a doctor may recommend:
- eating smaller meals
- avoiding certain types of food
- losing weight, if you’re overweight
- limiting or avoiding alcohol, sodas, and caffeine, if applicable
- quitting smoking, if applicable
Treatments for GERD may include:
- antacids for very mild symptoms
- over-the-counter (OTC) proton pump inhibitors that reduce the acid production in your stomach
- OTC H2 blockers, which also reduce your stomach’s acid production
- prescription-strength H2 blockers
- prescription-strength proton pump inhibitors
- motility drugs, which are prescription drugs that help your stomach empty faster so there’s less time for reflux to occur
- prescription mucosal protectors, such as sucralfate
Talk with a doctor about which of these options may help reduce acid production that can harm your esophagus as well as help relieve your stomach pain.
Also ask a doctor about possible side effects of different treatments. For example, proton pump inhibitors may upset your stomach.
In general, you don’t want to ignore GERD because, over time, the acidic backflow from your stomach toward your throat can damage the lining of your esophagus. This can lead to serious conditions like Barret’s esophagus, which increases your risk of esophageal cancer.
So, even if the stomach pain from GERD doesn’t bother you too much, it’s best to talk with a doctor about possible GERD treatment options to prevent long-term complications.
Just as you might treat your GERD-related stomach pain by embracing certain lifestyle habits, those same strategies may help you prevent GERD and the painful symptoms that can accompany it.
Let’s look at these prevention strategies in more detail.
Avoid certain foods
Some foods are notorious for triggering GERD episodes, such as:
- fatty and fried foods
- spicy foods
- citrus fruits and juices
- tomato and tomato products
- garlic and onions
- carbonated drinks
- caffeinated tea
You can limit or avoid some or all of these foods to manage your GERD symptoms.
Change the way you eat
You don’t have to just alter what you eat. You can change how you eat, too. Try forgoing big, heavy meals and opt for smaller, more frequent meals instead to see whether that improves your symptoms.
Lose weight if you have overweight or obesity
GERD is linked to obesity. If you have overweight or obesity, losing some weight can help reduce symptoms like heartburn and stomach pain.
If you smoke, this may be one of the harder steps to take, but it’s worth it: Quitting tobacco can improve your health in many ways.
In addition to boosting your cardiovascular health, blood pressure, and reducing your risk of many cancers, quitting smoking can help reduce your risk of GERD and its pain-related symptoms.
Elevate your head when you sleep at night
Keeping your head slightly elevated may help prevent stomach acid from moving up into your esophagus.
Prop your head up with a wedge pillow under the top of your mattress when you sleep. You could also try sleeping on your side to see whether that makes a difference, as side sleeping may be linked to some health benefits.
GERD pain is most commonly felt in the upper abdomen. If you have pain in other parts of your abdomen, it may be caused by something else.
Some possibilities include:
- Appendix issues. An inflamed or infected appendix may cause pain in the middle of your abdomen, which then moves to the lower right quadrant of your abdomen.
- Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic digestive system disorder can cause a variety of symptoms, including belly pain, gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
- Gas or bloating. Trapped gas can cause sudden, sharp stomach pain, bloating, and cramps.
- Constipation. If you’re having trouble passing a bowel movement, it can make your abdomen hurt.
- Food intolerance. Eating something your body has a hard time tolerating can cause stomach pain, diarrhea, bloating, cramping, headaches, and rashes.
- Stomach virus. Gastroenteritis can cause vomiting, diarrhea, fever or chills, and stomach pain.
- Foodborne illness. If you ate something that was contaminated with bacteria or other pathogens, it can cause stomach pain, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
- Menstrual cramps. Menstrual cramps can cause pain in the lower abdomen and lower back.
- Bowel blockage. When something blocks your intestine, it can cause severe pain in your belly. You may also have nausea and vomiting.
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm. This condition is a medical emergency. The pain from this type of aneurysm can be dull or sharp. It can occur in your chest, lower back, or groin, as well as your abdomen.
Stomach pain may not be the primary symptom of GERD, but it can often accompany acid reflux and regurgitation, which are the most common symptoms.
If you find that OTC treatments and lifestyle changes don’t improve your GERD-related stomach pain and other symptoms, talk with a doctor about other treatment options that may be right for you.