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Sometimes abdominal pain is serious, and sometimes it is not. Here is how to recognize situations in which you need to see a doctor.

Doctors can often do a great job diagnosing mysterious symptoms. Before they can use their professional judgment, however, one thing has to happen. The patient has to come in. Often patients have difficulty making decisions on whether or not to see a doctor for abdominal pain.

Before we get too far into this discussion, please remember a general principle:

It is far better to be seen by a doctor for symptoms that turn out not to be serious than it is not to be seen by a doctor in the early stages of a life-threatening condition.

With these general guidelines, however, you can determine when you need to make a trip to the emergency room, when you need to make an appointment to see the doctor soon, and when abdominal discomfort is likely to pass on its own.

Where Does It Hurt?

When you go to see the doctor with abdominal pain, chances are that the very first question you will be asked is "Where does it hurt?" 
With abdominal pain there are five possibilities:
  • Upper middle section. This is where you have most of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the pancreas. Your doctor will rule in or rule out problems with all of these organs if you have pain here.
  • Lower right quadrant. This section contains the last of the small intestine. In women, it's where there can be pain from the right ovary or from the appendix.
  • Lower left quadrant. This section of the abdomen is where women feel pain from the left ovary.
  • Upper right quadrant. This part of the abdomen houses the liver, the bile duct, the gall bladder, and the lower part of the right ribcage. The colon also loops up into this section.
  • Upper left quadrant. Pain here can be associated with the stomach, spleen, or colon.
Our bodies don't neatly give us pain sensations exactly where an organ is damaged all the time. Sometimes we experience referred pain. For instance, someone can have a heart attack and feel pain the abdomen but not in the chest, simply because he or she is "wired" differently. This happens more often than one might think in heart attack, but pain is almost never the only symptom of a myocardial infarction (MI, heart attack). Abdominal pain in any quadrant with shortness of breath and sweating is always a good reason to get checked out in an emergency room right away.

Diagnosing Abdominal Pain

Especially when you are in pain, or you are anxious for a loved one, it's a good idea to leave the diagnosing to the doctor. However, here are some common possibilities for abdominal pain for which you may be prepared.
  • Appendicitis pain starts around the navel and migrates to the lower right quadrant. Men generally feel the pain higher, and women feel the pain lower, but there is no hard and fast rule about where either sex will feel appendix pain.
  • Gallbladder attacks cause pain, tightness, and pressure in the upper right quadrant.
  • Ulcers usually cause pain in the middle of the abdomen, above the belly button.
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