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12th May, 20207 min read

What causes stomach pain after eating?

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 18/02/2021
Medically reviewed

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If your tummy hurts after eating, a simple bout of indigestion might be to blame. But there are also times when pain after eating can be a sign of something more serious.

Read on to learn about some of the common causes of stomach ache, abdominal pain or stomach cramps after eating, how to treat and manage the discomfort, and when to see a doctor.

Indigestion

Indigestion is a common condition that affects up to 41% of people in the UK and 1 in 4 people in the US.
It happens when acid from your stomach irritates the sensitive, protective lining of your stomach, food pipe (oesophagus) and the top part of your bowel.

Symptoms vary, but it often causes discomfort after eating, which can feel like a burning pain in your tummy.

Other symptoms can include feeling uncomfortably full bloating, feeling sick (nausea), having excess gas and a burning pain in your chest (heartburn). You may also bring up a small amount of food, or bitter-tasting fluid.

Treatment for indigestion

Indigestion can usually be treated at home by:

  • changing your diet – some foods are more likely to cause indigestion, including rich, fatty and spicy foods, and chocolate. It may also help to cut down on drinks containing caffeine (such as coffee) and fizzy and alcoholic drinks
  • maintaining a healthy weight – being overweight puts more pressure on your stomach, which can push stomach acid into your food pipe and cause indigestion
  • giving up smoking (if you smoke) – chemicals in cigarettes can cause the muscle between your stomach and food pipe to relax, so stomach acid moves into your food pipe
  • sleeping in a more upright position – this can help stop stomach acid from rising up your food pipe during the night. Try putting an extra pillow behind your head and shoulders when you go to bed
  • avoiding ibuprofen or aspirin – these can make indigestion worse
  • not eating 3 to 4 hours before going to bed

For fast relief, antacid medicines may ease your symptoms, as they neutralise the acid in your stomach.

Read more about ways to get rid of indigestion here

If your indigestion doesn't go away, or keeps coming back, see your doctor. They may prescribe stronger medication and run checks to rule out other conditions, such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, where stomach acid moves up into your food pipe.

You should also see a doctor if you have indigestion and you:

  • feel a lump in your tummy
  • are in a lot of pain
  • are 55 or older
  • lose weight without trying to
  • have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • are being sick (vomiting)
  • have iron deficiency anaemia
  • notice blood in your vomit or poo

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a long-term (chronic) condition that causes episodes of tummy pain or cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation. The symptoms are often worse after eating. The pain can be sharp, but may ease after doing a poo.

Other IBS symptoms include backache, nausea and feeling tired. Occasionally, you may find that you can’t control when you poo (incontinence) or have problems peeing, like needing to go more often.

Treatment for IBS

The exact causes of IBS are unknown, but the symptoms can often be managed by making changes to your diet and lifestyle. If you think you have IBS, a doctor can check your symptoms and offer advice.

However, you should see a doctor right away if you:

  • lose a lot of weight without trying to
  • notice bleeding from your bottom or blood in your poo
  • have a hard lump or swelling in your tummy
  • have shortness of breath and pale skin

Stomach ulcers

Stomach ulcers are open sores inside the body that form when the layer that protects your stomach lining from acid breaks down, damaging the lining of your stomach.

They can be caused by an infection or taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

The most common symptom of a stomach ulcer is a burning or gnawing pain in the centre of your tummy (abdomen). This can get better or worse after eating, depending on where the ulcer is. You may also get indigestion, heartburn or nausea.

Treatment for stomach ulcers

If you think you have a stomach ulcer, you should see a doctor, as they may prescribe treatment.

If you take NSAIDs, they will review this, and may recommend an alternative painkiller – but you shouldn’t stop taking any prescribed medication without talking to your doctor first.

You should get medical help urgently if you:

  • vomit blood
  • pass dark-coloured poo
  • feel a sharp pain in your tummy that gets worse

Gallstones

Gallstones are small stones that form in your gall bladder. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 people may have them, but not everyone gets symptoms.

They’re usually harmless, but they can cause tummy pain if they get stuck in one of the tubes (ducts) that lead to your gall bladder.

The pain can come on suddenly, be severe and usually last for up to 5 hours. The pain may also get worse when you eat a heavy meal.

Treatment for gallstones

If you think your pain may be caused by gallstones, you should see a doctor, as you may need to have them removed.

Painkillers can help to ease your symptoms. You should also try to avoid foods that can make symptoms worse, such as foods high in saturated fat.

Is it stomach pain or abdominal pain?

Some people refer to all abdominal pain as ‘stomach ache’ or ‘tummy ache’. Abdominal pain is any pain that occurs in the area between your chest and your groin.

Your liver, appendix, pancreas and intestines as well as other organs sit in this part of your body. So, conditions affecting any of these organs can cause abdominal pain.

The different conditions that can cause abdominal pain tend to affect specific areas. The 4 locations to consider are:

  • upper abdomen
  • lower abdomen
  • right side of the abdomen
  • left side of the abdomen

Read more about these 4 types of abdominal pain and what you can do about them here.

Key points

  • stomach pain after eating can be due to digestive problems
  • there are times when stomach pain can be serious
  • indigestion can feel like a burning pain in the tummy and often comes on after eating
  • IBS is a long-term condition where you get episodes of tummy pain, bloating and changes from diarrhoea or constipation
  • stomach ulcers can cause a gnawing, burning pain in your tummy, which may get better or worse after eating
  • gallstones can cause tummy pain, which may be worse after a heavy meal
  • if you have persistent stomach pain after eating, or you’re worried, see your doctor
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