What’s Causing This Stomachache After I Eat?

Medically reviewed by Michele Cho-Dorado, MD on October 16, 2017Written by Corinne O'Keefe Osborn on October 16, 2017

Overview

Are your eyes bigger than your stomach? Nearly everyone has overindulged at one time or another, leading to indigestion, fullness, and nausea. But if you’re experiencing stomach pain when eating normal amounts of food, it could be a sign of a problem.

Most causes of stomachache and indigestion aren’t serious and don’t require medical attention. Mild stomach upset can usually be treated at home with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

But if your pain is moderate or severe, you should talk to your doctor. Your symptoms could be a sign of a serious underlying condition.

There are many reasons why your stomach might hurt after eating. Read on to learn more.

Symptoms

There are many different types of stomach pain and upset. You’ve probably experienced many of them before.

Some common symptoms of stomach upset include:

If you or someone you know is having severe stabbing pain, it could be a medical emergency. You should consult with a doctor right away.

Dehydration is also a medical emergency. If you’re unable to consume liquids without vomiting or are having severe and persistent diarrhea, you may need to go to the emergency room for intravenous (IV) fluids.

Causes

There are several potential causes for stomach pain after you eat. These include:

Food allergies

Food allergies occur when your body mistakes a certain food for a harmful foreign invader and your immune system releases antibodies to fight it. This immune response can cause an array of symptoms, including stomach pain. Common food allergies include:

Read about basic first aid for allergic reactions.

Food intolerance

A food sensitivity or intolerance is when your body’s digestive system doesn’t agree with a certain food. There’s no immune system response involved in food intolerance. If you have a food intolerance, your digestive system either gets irritated by a food or can’t digest it properly.

Many people experience lactose intolerance, which means that milk and other dairy products give them symptoms of stomach upset.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is when your body has an immune response to gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. With repeated exposure, it causes damage to the lining of the small intestine. This causes symptoms of stomach upset and can lead to other serious complications.

GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic (long-lasting) digestive condition in which stomach acid comes back up into your esophagus. This acid reflux irritates the lining of your esophagus and can cause damage.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common chronic condition affecting the large intestine. It can cause:

  • abdominal pain
  • cramping
  • bloating
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • gas

It generally requires long-term management.

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is a serious, chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It causes inflammation in different parts of the digestive tract, which can lead to severe pain, diarrhea, and bloody stools, along with other symptoms. It’s a serious condition with potentially life-threatening complications.

Peptic ulcers

Peptic ulcers are sores that develop on the inside lining of your stomach and the upper part of your small intestine (duodenum). The most common symptom of an ulcer is a burning stomach pain. This pain can be aggravated by spicy foods.

Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols, which oddly contain neither sugar nor alcohol, are artificial sweeteners used in many sugar-free gums and candies. Sugar alcohols, like sorbitol, are food additives regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some people find that they cause digestive distress. The FDA warns that excessive consumption of sorbitol can have a “laxative effect.”

Constipation

Constipation happens when stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract and cannot be eliminated normally. Chronic constipation — several weeks with three or fewer bowel movements — can cause stomach pain and bloating. After you eat, when your body is trying to digest new food, your symptoms may get worse.

Diagnosis

Your doctor might be able to diagnose the cause of your stomach pain just by listening to you describe your symptoms. Sometimes, however, more invasive tests may be necessary. This could include:

If you suspect that you have a food intolerance, then trial and error is often the best way to identify it. You may want to keep a food diary to keep track of your symptoms. Your doctor might also recommend an elimination diet.

Treatment

If you’re experiencing stomach pain after eating, you may already have tried a few at-home treatments. If you haven’t found anything that works, it could be because you haven’t pinpointed the right underlying cause.

Ultimately, treatment for stomach pain will depend on what’s causing it. If you think you may have a food allergy, you should be evaluated by an allergist for correct diagnosis. If you have a food intolerance, you should try to avoid that food as much as possible.

A lactose-free diet may sound unappealing at first, but there are ways to make it work. You might want to consider seeing a nutritionist or picking up a cookbook with lactose-free recipes. If you think you may have an issue with gluten, you shouldn’t go gluten-free until you’ve been evaluated by a gastroenterologist and celiac disease has been ruled out. Testing for celiac disease should be done while on a diet which contains gluten.

Many of the uncomfortable symptoms of post-meal stomach pain can be managed with OTC medications. As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new medication, even if it doesn’t require a prescription.

Here are a few treatment options that you can find at your local pharmacy:

  • Simethicone (Gas-X) helps relieve uncomfortable bloating.
  • Antacids (Alka-Seltzer, Rolaids, Tums) neutralize stomach acid to reduce burning feelings.
  • Acid-reducers (Zantac, Pepcid) reduce the production of stomach acid for up to 12 hours.
  • Beano helps prevent gas.
  • Antidiarrheals (Imodium) stop diarrhea and its associated symptoms.
  • Lansoprazole and omeprazole (Prevacid, Prilosec) block acid production and help heal the esophagus when taken daily.
  • Pepto-Bismol coats the lining of the esophagus to reduce burning and treat nausea and diarrhea.
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) fights symptoms associated with an allergic immune response and helps treat nausea and vomiting.
  • Laxatives and stool softeners relieve occasional constipation and associated bloating.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) relieves pain without irritating the stomach like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can.
  • Probiotics aid in overall digestive health by introducing more good bacteria into your system.
  • Fiber supplements (Metamucil, Benefiber) help produce normal bowel movements and prevent constipation, though they can cause gas and bloating.

Complications

Possible complications will depend on what’s causing your stomach pain. Food allergies can lead to a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which can cause you to stop breathing. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency.

GERD can result in damage to the esophagus that causes difficulty swallowing. Peptic ulcers can lead to internal bleeding and serious infections. Chronic constipation can lead to hemorrhoids and anal fissures, among other problems.

Crohn’s disease is associated with the most serious complications, including bowel obstructions and fistulas that require surgical repair. It can also increase your risk of colon cancer.

Prevention

There are several things you may be able to do to prevent stomach pain after eating.

Prevention tips

Takeaway

There are a lot of things that could be causing your stomach to hurt after eating. It’s likely that you have common indigestion or heartburn and will benefit from OTC medications. But if your symptoms have persisted for several weeks, you may have a chronic condition and should consult your doctor as soon as possible.

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