Gastritis: Could It Be the Cause of Your Bad Bellyache?

Understanding causes + how to find relief

Illustration of stomach on fire in man's body

Do you ever find yourself doubled over in pain? Sometimes it’s mild — and other times, it’s an all-consuming, will-this-ever-end, curled-up-on-the-floor kind of pain. 

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Gastritis can be a total downer — not just because of the stomach pains, but also because of how it crimps your lifestyle, causing you to live with the constant fear of when it might happen next.

It’s time to get to the bottom of what’s causing this pain.

What causes gastritis? 

Gastritis is the term used to describe inflammation or irritation of the stomach lining. According to gastroenterologist Christine Lee, MD, the irritation can be the result of wide variety of causes such as infections, medications like aspirin or NSAIDs, stomach (gastric) cancer, or toxic substances including excessive alcohol, ingesting poison or chemicals, or excess stomach acid buildup.

“Take a skinned knee: The surface lining is damaged and the body increases blood flow to the area to help the healing process,” says Dr. Lee. “Then, neutrophils and lymphocytes (types of white blood cells) come in to help fight off bacteria and start the repair process. The result is that the area gets inflamed (swollen or appearing bruised before healing). This inflammatory process can bear down on nerve endings and cause different levels of pain.”

That same process occurs in the stomach lining and — just like a skinned knee — it can “ache” or “hurt” in varying intensities.

But why does gastritis pain hurt so bad?

Doctors can’t explain why the pain is excruciatingly intense for some people and mildly nagging for others. The short answer is that people perceive pain at different intensities.

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Dr. Lee says gastritis pain usually occurs in the mid-upper stomach region, just below the breastbone and above the belly button. People describe gastritis pain in different ways, but these descriptions are common:

  • Nagging discomfort.
  • Dull or burning pain.
  • Intense stabbing pain.

The pain quality varies widely. It can come and go in some. In others, it may be constant with waxing and waning intensities — with or without specific triggers (like it may be worse before or after eating). Sometimes, the pain will come and hang around. Other times, it comes and goes with periods of little-to-no discomfort.

Dr. Lee also says most people intuitively know when the symptoms warrant a trip to the ER. She recommends calling 911 or going to the emergency room if you experience alarming signs such as:

  • Chest pains, shortness of breath, weakness or inability to tolerate any foods or liquids by mouth.
  • High-grade fever.
  • Vomiting or bowel movements with blood.
  • Rapid change or severe escalation of your pain.

Gastritis. It’s a pain in the … stomach lining

If you’ve had periods of awful stomach pain, make an appointment with your primary physician or a gastroenterologist — a digestive specialist.

Gastroenterologists will try to get to the bottom of why you are in so much pain and rule out other concerns like peptic ulcer disease, gallstones, pancreatitis, celiac disease or abnormal cell growth. They’ll ask you when, where, and how severe the pain is on a scale of 1 to 10, and anything that makes your symptoms better or worse.

Common causes for gastritis include:

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  • Stress.
  • Medications, like nonsteroidal pain relievers.
  • Alcohol.
  • Infections, intentional or accidental ingestions of toxins or poisons, or abnormal cell growth.

Sometimes, conservative measures — like avoiding triggers or staying upright for two to three hours after eating — can make a huge difference. You may need extra testing to figure out what will bring relief. Common gastritis treatments include medications or working with a dietitian to figure out the right eating plan for you.

Be honest: How dangerous is stomach inflammation?

Dr. Lee says only a small percentage progress into serious complications from chronic gastritis. These include different types of gastric cancers, peptic ulcer diseases that cause intestinal perforation, which can then lead to sepsis and possibly death.

In the majority of gastritis cases, with the right combination of treatments and lifestyle modifications, resolve themselves without any severe consequences.

“My best advice is to pay attention to your body. If you’ve been living with on-again, off-again pain for more than couple of weeks, or you’re experiencing unexplained weight loss, bleeding, or any new symptoms that fail to improve or resolve completely, it’s probably time to see a doctor,” says Dr. Lee. 

Talk to your doctor about your symptoms so you get the right type of evaluation. This will make sure you receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

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