Understanding
abdominal pain

In order to help with understanding the causes
of abdominal cramps, pain and discomfort we will
first learn about the location and function of the
organs in the abdomen.

Upper abdomen
1Oesophagus

After food has been chewed and swallowed, it moves down a tube called the oesophagus (food pipe). At the lower deeper end of this tube, at the junction with the stomach, we find a tight ring of muscle. This ring relaxes briefly to allow food into the stomach, but it is usually tightly shut to prevent stomach acid reflux from harming the inner walls of the oesophagus.

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Digestion and
abdominal cramps


Now that you have learned how each of the main organs in your abdomen works, how about understanding how abdominal cramps, pain and discomfort occur?



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Smooth muscle

The movement of the food through the tract occurs due to a gentle wave of contraction and relaxation of a layer of smooth muscle running along the entire length of the digestive tract.

Peristalsis

The stomach, small intestine and large intestine, all have an outer layer of smooth muscle. Using rhythmic, wave-like muscle contractions known as peristalsis, food is gently squeezed, broken down and pushed along the digestive tract. The entire process occurs without us needing to even think about it. In fact, usually, we do not even feel these gentle contractions at all.

Out of balance

The entire digestive tract works together in a co-ordinated manner. The digestive tract is very sensitive and certain food, bacteria, stress or excitement can all cause the movement of the smooth muscles along the digestive tract to get out of balance. When this happens, the normally gentle, wave-like contractions can become strong, painful cramps. These can be intensely painful, and can last for several hours or even several days if left untreated.

What's next?

Symptoms of abdominal pain

Find out more

Do you have IBS?

Find out more