What causes stomach ache after meals?

What causes stomach ache after meals?
July 30, 2014 10:45 PM

This article features various causes of stomach ache after meals, including tips for prevention. You will find here some obvious causes of stomach pain (eating too fast, gastroenteritis, stomach ulcer, taking medication) as well as some less known causes of upset stomach.

Stomach is a muscular organ located on the upper left side of the abdomen. This organ plays a vital role in the digestion of food. If you experience pain in your addomen right after eating, it indicates that there is something wrong with your stomach or the surrounding organs.

Stomach pain after meals can either be mild, moderate or severe. Treatment of ache should focus on the cure of underlying cause.

Why your stomach hurts after meals?

Gastroenteritis

If you started having stomach ache, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting after eating food then probably you’re suffering from gastroenteritis (1). Gastroenteritis is inflammation and irritation of the stomach and intestines, which usually follows bacterial or viral infections. These infectious organisms are most commonly present in contaminated foods or water.

Gastroenteritis causes pain in the stomach as quickly as 2-4 hours after eating the contaminated food.

Prevention & treatment

You may get better without treatment after a few days. The key treatment is IV fluids, oral rehydration solution (ORS), antibiotics and anti-emetics (to treat nausea and vomiting). To keep away gastroenteritis, always wash your hands before handling or eating any food. If you suspect the food you are about to eat is contaminated, you should avoid it.

Peptic ulcer disease

Peptic ulcers refer to painful sores in the walls of the stomach (2). The stomach secretes acid, which helps in the digestion of food. The lining epithelium of the stomach prevents this acid from damaging stomach itself.

When your stomach's protective lining is damaged, the acid starts to digest the stomach itself and the result is peptic ulcer disease (PUD) occurs. PUD is a painful condition, especially if the ulcer are deep.

Peptic-Ulcer

Common causes are H.pylori (a bacterium) infection, alcohol and drugs like NSAIDS. Stomach pain due to PUD begins about two hours after eating a meal. It is severe pain in the upper abdomen and sometimes radiates to the back.

Prevention & treatment

Avoid smoking, alcohol consumptions and NSAIDs. Proton pump inhibitors to block acid secretion and antacids to neutralize acid in the stomach are used for the treatment. Antibiotics are also advised to treat H. pylori infections.

Sensitive stomach and food intolerance

The most probable cause of stomach ache and discomfort after intake of food is food intolerance (3). Pain is coupled with sweating, nausea and vomiting. It is known as “non-allergic food hypersensitivity”.

It is an old saying "One man's food is another man's poison". In other words, this saying means that different people can have different reactions to exactly the same food. Sensitivity to foods varies from person to person. Sensitivity depends upon the type and amount of food eaten. People show sensitivity to foods like peppers and mushrooms.

If you’re sensitive to certain food then after eating that food your stomach and intestines would respond by going into a spasm (a sudden, involuntary contraction of abdominal muscles) that may result in a severe stomach ache and diarrhea. It can result in an emergency requiring immediate treatment.

Prevention & treatment

It is necessary to discover and remember the food to which you are intolerant or sensitive to. Avoidance and limitations of that food for sure may be helpful.

Capsaicin

You may suffer from stomach pain after taking spicy foods. Capsaicin, one of the components of spicy food, is the culprit (4). When you eat spicy food, capsaicin comes into contact with the lining epithelium of the stomach and irritates it, leading to pain and temporary discomfort.

Capsaicin is naturally found in chilies such as poblanos, jalapenos and habaneros. It is also used in farming and gardening to keep bugs and animals away.

Prevention & treatment

Limit the level of spice in your food. If you could avoid spicy and junk foods all together that would be better. Take fluids (not colas) during eating to lessen the effect of spices on the stomach. Cucumber, pear and peppermint oil can offer you some relief.

Lactose intolerance

Lactose is a sugar that is naturally present in milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, chocolate and soy products. This sugar is digested by an enzyme called lactase, which is normally present in the gut. Some people lack this enzyme and are known as “lactose intolerant” (5).

Therefore, if you’re lactose intolerant you take a product that contains lactose, it may result in bloating, severe pain in the stomach and gas.

Prevention & treatment

Avoid dairy, soy and all other products that contain lactose in abundance. Use milk products that have reduced lactose - such products are available in the market.

You can also take lactase substitutes in the form of tablets, capsules or liquid drops. Lactase substitutes replace the deficient lactase enzyme in the intestines and help in the break down of lactose.

Fructose intolerance

If you experience diarrhea, heartburn and bloating in addition to pain in the stomach every time you eat fruits, you are likely to have fructose intolerance (6). Fructose is naturally present in all fruits and is the sweetest of all sugars. In those with fructose intolerance, fructose is not digested at all. This undigested fructose goes to the intestines and bacteria in the intestine ferment that sugar and release gase. This gas result in the symptoms of fructose intolerance.

Prevention & treatment

Elimination of fruits and table sugar is an effective treatment.

Gluten intolerance

Some people are allergic to gluten (7). Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, rye, barley and graham flour. Gluten intolerance is the reaction of your immune system after you eat gluten. The reaction is preceded by inflammation, which damages the lining of your small intestines, which may lead to severe stomach ache as well as bloating.

Prevention & treatment

Enjoy a gluten free diet. Eat foods like fresh meats, fruits, potatoes, vegetables, rice and corn, which are completely free of gluten.

Indigestion

You may feel a mild stomach ache and discomfort after eating certain kinds of foods (8). That food might be very oily or fatty. The pain is usually attributed to indigestion. You may feel like burping a lot and you may have an acidic taste in your mouth too. This pain usually goes in a few hours.

Prevention & treatment

Avoid spicy and fatty foods. Do not talk while eating and do not take late night meals. Eat slowly and take small meals. Do not lie down just after eating. Avoid alcohol and beverages containing caffeine. Indigestion problems can be easily treated by the use of acid blockers, for example omeprazole, esomeprazole etc.

Abdominal cramps due to wind

Stomach cramps (sudden, severe, painful and involuntary muscle contraction) after eating often occur due to trapped wind and bloating. It can be very embarrassing from time to time. The abdomen may become swollen or bloated too (9).

Prevention & treatment

To prevent entry of wind, eat slowly. Avoid unnecessary talks while food in the mouth. The pain is usually relieved by passing wind. The problem is very easy to deal. Abdominal muscle relaxants such as buscopan or mebeverine are usually recommended for the treatment of stomach ache associated with bloating.

Anxiety, stress and depression

Stress, anxiety and depression can cause stomach problems (10). These conditions reduce the blood supply to the stomach and poor blood flow to the stomach leads to poor digestion, resulting in bloating and cramping abdominal pain.

During stressful condition your body releases a hormone known as cortisol or stress hormone, to protect you from the harms of stress.

Prevention & treatment

Cure of stomach pain in such situations is simple and obvious. As stress is the culprit, try your best to relax during meals. Take meals in small divided quantities. If the problem is severe you may need some anti-depressants.

Eating too quickly and over-eating

Sometimes you may experience stomach ache and severe bloating right after eating. One possible cause for this ache is overeating or consuming your food too quickly (11).

It happens when you consume food not simply to please your hunger, however, to satisfy our food cravings. Your digestive system cannot handle so much food and gets disturbed. As a result, the food is not properly digested and you end up with stomach pain. Pain may be accompanied by abdominal discomfort and cramps.

Prevention & treatment

Make a schedule for your diet, plan your meals and make sure to follow the schedule. Curb overeating. In an effort to break down all the food you have eaten, your body may become dehydrated. So, always keep a bottle of water near you to maintain your hydration. You can also take small walks after eating to ease digestion.

Drinking cold drinks with hot food

If you are taking cold drinks with food, you are likely to suffer from stomach ache accompanied by stomach cramps. This happens because extremely cold and chilled drinks cause your stomach muscles to go into a state of spasm (sudden, violent, involuntary and painful contractions) (12).

Prevention & treatment

Avoid cold drinks while eating hot food. Pain automatically goes in a few minutes.

Side effect of medicines like NSAIDs

Over the counter drugs like NSAIDs (aspirin, paracetamol, codeine and ibuprofen), which are usually used for their pain relieving and anti-inflammatory effects can cause stomach problems as a side effect (13).

These drugs reduce the production of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins plays an important role in the stomach as they enhance bicarbonate secretion and inhibits acid secretion. Decrease in their release leads to an overall increase in stomach acidity resulting in pain, cramps, swelling and even diarrhea.

Prevention & treatment

Avoid unnecessary use of NSAIDs. Those people who have some sort of stomach problem should completely refrain from these drugs. Take some antacids for immediate cure.

Constipation

Constipation is a very common problem. It is known as the “mother of all disease”. Constipation can be defined as passing hard, painful stools or passing stools less frequently than usual or less than 3 stools in a week. Constipation occurs due to lack of sufficient fiber and water in the diet (14).

Fibers add roughage to your body, makes your stool soft and easy to pass. Constipation leads to crampy pain in the stomach that is aggravated after eating because the intestines are already loaded with food. More food cannot enter into the intestines from the stomach, which then leads to stomach ache, swelling and bloating.

Prevention & treatment

You can get immediate relief by walking and light exercises. Light exercises restore the normal working of your gut. Drink a lot of water (at least 8 glasses per day) to combat constipation. To keep your digestive system healthy, also add some fibers (it is presnt in fruits, vegetables and whole grains) to your diet. If these measures are not working, you can go for laxatives.

Exercising immediately after eating

Eating and exercising should not be done at the same time (15). Most of the time, blood freely flows around your body, providing nutrients and oxygen to all body cells. When you eat, your digestive system demands increased energy to perform its job effectively. Your digestive sends message to the brain and brain in turn sends the message to heart to pump more blood to the digestive system so that its demand can be fulfilled.

As your gut uses a high amount of energy for digestion, that is why you might feel tired after eating a big meal. When you exercise exactly opposite happens. Now your muscles demand high energy and the brain now sends message to heart to increase its blood flow towards muscles to make them work properly.

So, if you've just eaten and have started exercising, your system becomes ‘confused’, because your digestive system is trying to retain blood and oxygen, but your muscles are also trying to suck blood towards them. The end result is stomach pain, cramps and stress.

Prevention & treatment

Avoid exercises immediately after eating. Don't go swimming right after eating a meal. Don't go jumping right after meals.

Heartburn

Heartburn is the most common cause of stomach ache after meals (16). It is characterized by burning or painful sensations in the chest and in the upper part of the abdomen. The severity of pain increases when you lie down. Change in posture or bending also worsens it. Pain usually starts right after eating and is usually quite severe in nature.

Prevention & treatment

Avoid cola drinks and foods that are known to trigger heartburn. Avoid smoking. Elevate your bed-head. As acids are the cause, antacids should be taken to neutralize the stomach acids. Medicines that can reduce stomach acid production can also be helpful. Milk can also provide some relief from heartburn.

Irritable bowel syndrome

If your stomach discomfort is persistent after every meal along with the alternating constipation and diarrhea, then you could have irritable bowel syndrome (17).

It is a disorder of GIT of unknown cause. Symptoms of IBS vary from person to person and tend to come and go. General symptoms include stomach pain, tiredness after eating, bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea and mucus in stool.

Prevention & treatment

As the cause is not known treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms. Avoid over-eating, alcohol, coffee and products that contain milk. Maintain a high-fiber diet. Go to your doctor for further advice and help. He may prescribe you anti-diarrheal, antibiotic, fiber supplements, anti-cholinergic medications and anti-depressants.

Stomach cancers

Stomach cancer can be the cause of severe stomach ache right after eating. Stomach cancer is also known as gastric cancer. It arises in the mucus-producing cells present on the inside lining of the stomach.

Of all the stomach cancers adenocarcinoma is the most common (18).

Adenocarcinoma leads to indigestion, stomach discomfort, pain and bloating after eating. Less common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, heartburn, loss of appetite, fear of eating and feeling of fullness. Weight loss can also occur.

Prevention & treatment

The best treatment option is gastrectomy. Gastrectomy is a surgical procedure in which all or part of the stomach along with the surrounding tissue is removed. Other ways of treating stomach cancers are radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Diverticulas

Diverticulas are pockets or pouches that form in the lining of the intestine. These look like punched-out holes. These are known as weak points and are prone to become infected and inflamed. They occur because of lack of fibers in the diet. As fiber softens the stool its deficiency can make stools hard. Symptoms of diverticulitis are severe stomach cramps accompanied by tenderness in the lower abdomen. Intensity of pain increases after eating (19).

Prevention & treatment

Fiber rich diet can help you. Antibiotics drugs and surgical procedures help in the management of diverticulas.

Food poisoning

How can food poisoning (a popular cause) be forgotten when talking about severe stomach ache after meals. Food poisoning is triggered by microorganisms like parasites, bacteria and viruses. Microorganisms enter the body through infected foods, drinks or hands (20).

Symptoms usually start about 2-4 hours after consumption of the infected food. Common symptoms are abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. The symptoms of food poisoning usually last about 1-2 days but in some cases these can be serious or fatal.

Prevention & treatment

Drink a lot of fluids to prevent dehydration. Take some rest as it enables the body to get rid of all the microorganisms. The only medical cure of food poisoning is antibiotics.

Intestinal obstruction

A blockage in your digestive system can prevent or hinder the proper passage of food into the intestines (21). An obstruction can be caused by a number of causes such as large piece of food that was not properly broken down, hernia, tumor or adhesion. One important sign of obstruction is severe crampy pain in the belly after meals followed by a foul smelling vomit. Stools may become watery or are absent at all.

Prevention & treatment

Prevention and treatment depends upon the cause of intestinal obstruction. Treatment is passage of tube from mouth to stomach called as nasogastric tube.

Surgery may also be required.

Pelvic inflammatory disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection that affects the organs of the reproductive system in females, including the uterus, ovaries or Fallopian tubes. Infection is usually caused by bacteria (23).

PID can be an indirect cause of stomach ache.

As after eating your stomach becomes full, it puts pressure on your inflamed organs, resulting in pain.

Pain during intercourse can also occur.

Prevention & treatment

Antibiotics can efficiently treat the condition.

Gall stones

Severe pain in the upper right side of abdomen occurs due to gallstones. Pain can also appear in the upper part of the stomach.

The pain aggravates after meals, especially after fatty foods (24).

The gall bladder is a pear shaped organ, present just underneath the liver on the upper right side of the abdomen and stores bile (a dark-green color fluid produced by the liver that aids in the digestion of lipids).

Many conditions lead to the formation of stones in it.

The pain lasts for a few minutes to several hours.

Pain also goes to the back and right shoulder.

Prevention & treatment

Try to avoid fat rich foods and maintain a stable average weight as opposite can precipitate gallstones. Your doctor may prescribe you medicines that can dissolve the gallstones. Ultimate option is surgical removal of gallbladder i.e. cholecystectomy.

Pancreatitis

A less common cause of stomach ache is pancreatitis (25). Pancreatitis can cause severe stomach pain that comes immediately after taking meals. Stomach cramps may also appear about 6 to 12 hours after eating a meal. The pain starts in the upper abdomen and spreads to the back and sides. Other symptoms are nausea, fever and increased heartbeat.

Prevention & treatment

Normal weight, balanced diet and regular exercise can prevent pancreatitis. Treatment of pancreatitis will also relieve stomach ache.

Appendicitis

Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix (26). Appendix is a small sac or pouch attached to the large intestine. The appendix is susceptible to become obstructed by food and bacteria during the digestive process.

Typical symptom are severe pain and discomfort that usually starts in the mid-abdomen and progresses into the lower right part of the abdomen especially after meals.

Fever and vomiting may accompany pain.

Prevention & treatment

It is an emergency condition. The only treatment is immediate appendectomy. If the appendix is not removed on time, it can burst, leading to life-threatening sepsis.

Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Gastro-esophageal reflux disease or GERD is a disease in which the food particles from the stomach instead of passing forward reflux back into the esophagus (27). The cause of GERD is weakening of the valve that separates the stomach from the esophagus, allowing food and acid to go upwards. GERD can cause pain in the upper portion of the stomach and lower chest followed by heartburn. Pain becomes worse after eating, especially after overeating or fatty meals.

Prevention & treatment

Avoid solid foods. Cut out greasy foods. Say no to alcohol. Medicines that block or neutralize acid can help you, for example, H2 blockers, antacids and proton pump inhibitors.

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Written by: Michal Vilímovský (EN)
Education: Medical student, 3rd Faculty of Medicine, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic
Article resources: See numbered references within the article body
Image resources: Dollarphotoclub.com
Published: July 30, 2014 10:45 PM
Last updated: November 23, 2015 10:45 PM
Next scheduled update: November 23, 2017 10:45 PM
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