Gastrointestinal symptoms to never ignore

By | April 3, 2024

Medically reviewed by Kumkum S. Patel MD, MPH

Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms affect most people from time to time. The gastrointestinal tract is the body’s digestive system. Common GI symptoms include bloating, indigestion and heartburn. Other symptoms that may indicate a health problem include sudden abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea, and bloody stools.

This article discusses serious gastrointestinal symptoms that should never be ignored, their possible causes, and what you can do about them.

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Stomach cramps

Stomach cramps are a common gastrointestinal symptom that often feels like a dull, aching pain. The discomfort may be constant or come and go. Common causes of stomach cramps include constipation, gas, diarrhea, a virus, hormonal medications, menstruation, pregnancy and ovulation.

Serious causes of stomach cramps can include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): A condition that causes diarrhea, constipation, and cramps

  • Gallstones: Hard deposits that block the bile ducts and can cause cramps and pain

  • Inflammatory bowel disease: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis cause chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, stomach cramps and pain

  • Kidney stones: hard deposits that can get stuck in the urinary tract or ureter

  • Diverticulitis: Occurs when small pouches or pouches in the colon become inflamed, causing pain and cramping

  • Appendicitis: An inflammation of the appendix that causes significant abdominal pain and cramps

  • Pancreatitis: An inflammation of the pancreas that causes abdominal pain, cramps and vomiting

  • Endometriosis: When endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus and causes significant pain and cramps during the menstrual cycle

Swollen abdomen

If you notice a swollen abdomen, it is probably due to bloating. Common causes of bloating include gas, indigestion, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), IBS, or lactose intolerance, which causes bloating, gas, and diarrhea after ingesting lactose (dairy products).

Serious causes of a swollen abdomen include:

  • IBD

  • Ascites: an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, caused by chronic liver disease

  • Gallstones

  • Pancreatitis

  • Ovarian cyst: A fluid-filled sac on or in the ovary that causes abdominal pain and swelling

Related: diseases of the digestive system

Bloody vomit

Bloody vomit indicates bleeding somewhere in your digestive tract. Never ignore bloody vomit because the cause of the bleeding requires treatment. Possible causes of bloody vomit include:

  • Anthrax: An ulcer on the lining of the stomach or small intestine that can bleed and cause vomiting

  • Chronic pancreatitis: can lead to bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal tract

  • Tumor: A tumor in the gastrointestinal tract can irritate the tissues and cause bleeding

  • Traumatic injury: An injury to the abdominal area that can lead to internal bleeding (see a healthcare provider immediately if this happens)

  • Esophageal varices: swollen veins in cirrhotic patients

Pain in the navel

Pain around your belly button usually indicates a mild condition such as indigestion or constipation. Serious causes of belly button pain can include:

  • Abdominal wall hernia: Occurs when part of an organ protrudes (penetrates) into a muscle area, leading to pain around the belly button

  • Crohn’s disease: causes inflammation and pain around the belly button

  • Appendicitis

  • Gallstones

  • Pancreatitis

  • Bowel obstruction: Occurs when the intestine is blocked and stool cannot pass through

  • Intestinal perforation: a hole that occurs in the stomach or large intestine

Bloody stools or urine

Blood in the stool or urine means that you are bleeding somewhere in your lower gastrointestinal tract or urinary tract. A small amount of bright red blood during exertion can indicate hemorrhoids. Serious causes of bloody stools can include:

  • Anal fissure: a small tear in the lining of the rectum that causes drops of red blood when you wipe after using the toilet

  • Diverticulitis: A condition that can lead to diverticular bleeding

  • Infectious colitis: an infection in the colon that causes inflammation and bleeding

  • Colon polyps: growths on the lining of the colon and rectum that can become irritated and bleed

  • Colorectal cancer: cancer of the colon or rectum in which cancerous growths can cause bleeding

A small amount of blood in the urine after a bladder or urinary tract procedure is common. For example, you may experience minor bleeding after receiving a catheter. People who are menstruating may notice blood in their urine, caused by their periods. Serious causes of bloody urine can include:

Pain in the upper abdomen

Pain in the upper part of your stomach may indicate indigestion or heartburn. Sudden pain in the upper abdomen may indicate a problem with the organs in that area. The stomach, pancreas, spleen, liver, gallbladder and bile ducts are located in the upper abdomen. Serious causes of upper abdominal pain can include:

  • Stomach ulcer: can cause upper abdominal pain

  • Pancreatitis

  • Splenomegaly: An enlarged spleen can cause upper abdominal pain

  • Gallstones

  • Cholecystitis: an inflammation of the gallbladder that often causes nausea and upper abdominal pain

  • Hepatitis: Inflammation of the liver is usually caused by an infection; A sign of hepatitis is pain in the upper abdomen

  • Cancer: Cancer of the stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, or bile ducts can cause pain

Abdominal pain lower right

Pain in the lower abdomen may indicate constipation, diarrhea or menstrual cramps. If you notice pain in the right side of the abdomen, it could be your appendix. Pain in the lower right quadrant may mean inflammation in your appendix (appendicitis). In rare cases this may indicate appendiceal cancer.

Constantly feeling full

Feeling full without eating or after eating only a small amount is not normal. Temporary causes of feeling very full can be eating habits, indigestion or constipation. More serious causes of constantly feeling full may include:

  • IBS

  • Ulcer

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Occurs when the contents of the stomach come back up into the esophagus; this can make you feel full

  • Gastroparesis: A condition in which the stomach slowly empties

  • Gastritis: An inflammation of the stomach lining that can make you feel full

  • Pancreatitis

Black stool

Black stools usually mean that there is bleeding in the digestive tract. Certain foods and supplements, such as blueberries or iron supplements, can make stools appear darker. Black stools can mean bleeding in the esophagus, stomach or small intestine. It could also mean that you have a bleeding ulcer.

Sudden pulsating pain

You may feel a throbbing sensation in the abdomen due to a large blood vessel called the abdominal aorta. You may feel the pulse of the abdominal aorta when there is increased blood flow due to pregnancy, eating, or positioning (lying down). An abdominal aortic aneurysm can cause sudden pulsating pain in the abdomen.

Strong feelings of hunger

It is normal to feel hungry if you have not eaten for a long time. Hunger is your body’s way of communicating that it’s time to eat. Common causes of hunger are hunger, dehydration and constipation. Serious causes of intense feelings of hunger can include:

  • IBS

  • Stomach ulcer

  • Anxiety: Causes physical symptoms including stomach upset and intestinal cramps that can feel like hunger

  • Medications: including antidepressants, antipsychotics, diabetes medications, steroids, and anticonvulsants (epileptics), which can cause hunger and weight gain

Constant diarrhea

Most people experience diarrhea or loose stools from time to time. If you have persistent or chronic diarrhea, consult a healthcare provider. The types of diarrhea that may indicate a health problem include:

  • Watery: Can be caused by an infection, food poisoning or IBS

  • Fat: Usually means that your body has trouble breaking down dietary fats; causes may include celiac disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), or gastric bypass surgery

  • Inflammation: Occurs when the colon is inflamed due to infection, IBD, diverticulitis, or cancer

  • Bloody: indicates inflammation or colon cancer


Gastrointestinal symptoms are common and often include heartburn, indigestion, bloating and cramps. Other GI symptoms are more serious and may indicate a health problem. If you ever experience bleeding that involves vomiting, urinating, or passing stool, see a doctor. Seek medical attention if you notice sudden abdominal pain that does not improve.

Read the original article about Verywell Health.

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