Nearly everyone has experienced the pain of stomach bloating. The pressure in your abdomen and pain that comes with it can be enough to make you wonder if something is really wrong. But what causes stomach bloating and how serious is it?
Usually bloating is a temporary condition caused by eating something that didn't agree with you. The causes of bloating can differ, but the effect is usually the same—excess gas in the digestive tract. Depending on how much air is trapped in your stomach and large or small intestine, you can experience a wide range of potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable symptoms. In addition to pain in the abdomen, symptoms can include increased belching and flatulence or even the visible swelling of the abdomen.
Most of the time, bloating and pain in the abdomen will clear up without treatment. As uncomfortable as it may be, one bout of pain and bloating is not usually a cause to talk to your doctor. And don’t be embarrassed about finding it extremely painful. Many patients find themselves in an emergency room resulting in a diagnosis no more serious than a trapped pocket of gas. Please note, however, that there are very serious conditions that can cause abdominal pain and bloating and the symptoms should not be ignored if they do not dissipate in a timely manner or recur frequently.
What Causes Bloating?
The good news is, many cases of stomach bloating are nothing more serious than the buildup of gas somewhere in the digestive system. While uncomfortable, and potentially embarrassing if your abdomen is visibly swollen, many cases of stomach bloating are not dangerous. Often, the pain and pressure can be caused by dietary issues such as lactose intolerance or other food allergies.
Many different foods, and even some behaviors such as eating too fast, can cause gas to build up. In cases where food intolerance is not an issue, drinking soda, chewing gum, or even drinking beverages through a drinking straw can lead to swallowing air, which can cause bloating. In other cases, abdominal bloating can be relieved by regular bowel movements when stool blockages are causing a backup of gas in the intestines.
A wide variety of other common causes can lead to bloating, including water retention. Women can also experience bloating in conjunction with their menstrual cycle. When gas is the culprit, your symptoms will often be short-lived and sometimes clear up with your next bowel movement or after a period of increased flatulence. If you are in pain and your bloating is not resolving itself quickly, it can be beneficial to attempt to treat your temporary bloating with over-the-counter medications such as simethicone.
If your bloating is recurring, you may need to go a step further and make changes to your diet and lifestyle to find relief. No matter how tempting a bowl of ice cream can be or how tough it can be to get up the energy for a workout, changes in diet and exercise can be the key to finding relief from persistent stomach pain.
Ongoing or chronic abdominal pain that is not relieved by changes in diet or lifestyle may indicate a more serious medical condition. Your doctor can help you identify causes of bloating and discomfort you may not have considered. Chronic bloating can be a sign of conditions that affect your gastrointestinal system, or GI tract, including Crohn’s disease, other gastrointestinal disorders, liver disease, and even certain types of cancer. With potential causes as serious as these in the mix, it pays to seek treatment early instead of hoping ongoing symptoms will simply resolve themselves in time. If you or someone you know has been experiencing chronic bloating, it may be time to seek medical advice.
Causes for Concern with Bloating
Simply having temporary abdominal swelling is not an immediate cause for concern. If your symptoms are also associated with other changes in your body, it may be time to talk to your doctor. For example, when chronic bloating is associated with sudden, unintentional weight loss, it can be a sign of a serious digestive disorder.
When Should I Talk to My Doctor About Stomach Bloating?
Serious conditions related to stomach bloating can range from irritable bowel syndrome to potentially life-threatening conditions such as cancer. In cases like these, talking to your doctor is essential, and diagnosing the root cause of your bloating may require talking to a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist. Beginning a course of treatment for serious conditions can be the difference between life and death. For other chronic illnesses such as Crohn's disease, active management of diet and exercise can greatly improve your quality of life, as well as help manage the progression of symptoms.
Individual instances of abdominal pain are typically not a cause for concern though, and will usually clear up without medical intervention. If your pain or discomfort persists, it may be time to make changes to your diet or begin exercising more. When pain and bloating continue, even when you make changes to your diet and lifestyle, it is probably time to seek medical advice.
Typically, diagnosing persistent stomach bloating involves talking through your symptoms with your doctor. If food allergies are not present and lifestyle changes do not bring relief, your doctor may recommend further testing such as X-rays, CT scan, or an endoscopy to help diagnose the cause of your bloating.
Tips to Get Rid of Simple Bloating
For individual episodes of stomach bloating, there are several simple remedies that can provide fast relief. If beans, lentils, brussels sprouts, or cabbage cause gas, reducing them in your diet is a good place to start. If you have already indulged in food that is leaving you feeling poorly, there are still options for relief. Over-the-counter drugs are common solutions for rapid relief of pain caused by too much gas in your GI tract, and adding probiotics to your diet can also be a way to provide ongoing relief and may help prevent bloating.
There are many ways you can begin taking care of your digestive health to avoid or reduce the pain associated with stomach bloating. Below are just a few of the easy ways to get started.
If you notice a build-up of gas after eating dairy, lactose intolerance may be the cause of your abdominal bloating. Removing dairy products from your diet can provide relief. There are medications on the market that promise to relieve or prevent the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance, but if you find you are having trouble with dairy, your best bet is to eliminate lactose-heavy foods whenever possible.
Celiac disease is another common food allergy that can be linked to abdominal bloating. Celiac is a serious condition and requires a proper diagnosis and course of treatment monitored by a gastroenterologist. Current diet and media trends mean gluten free options are readily available. Other conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or small intestine bacterial overgrowth may share symptoms with celiac disease. Each condition runs some serious risks to your overall health, so it is important to not self-diagnose and see your doctor to have the appropriate tests to confirm whether you may be suffering from celiac disease or other digestive disorders.
Adding Fiber to Your Diet
There is no doubt that chronic constipation is a road to discomfort. Maintaining regular bowel movements is essential to keeping your digestive tract functioning properly, and something as simple as adding fiber to your diet and increasing your water intake and daily exercise can help. Studies show few Americans get their daily dose of fiber, but adding more fiber to your diet should be done slowly. The rapid introduction of large amounts of fiber to your diet can actually end up irritating your GI tract, which can lead to the very stomach pain you are trying to avoid. For those who already have a diet high in fiber but are still experiencing constipation, adding a dietary supplement may be beneficial.
Changes in Diet
We have already discussed food allergies and common healthy foods that can cause bloating and the build-up of gas. At the other end of the health spectrum, artificial sweeteners used in sugar-free foods are also known to be problematic for some people. A major source of these artificial sweeteners in the American diet is carbonated beverages. Carbonated beverage, either diet or full sugar, can cause gas.
As is the case with so many medical conditions, increasing the amount you exercise can help relieve pressure associated with bloating. Strenuous exercise that causes you to sweat will release salt from your body, which in turn helps reduce water retention—a condition that is associated with bloating. Simple walking can aid digestion and reduce the risk of constipation, but be careful beginning any program of exercise. It is always best to consult your doctor to be sure you engage in exercises appropriate for your level of fitness.
Many medications can affect your digestion, even if the drugs in question are being taken to treat other conditions. If you are taking medications that could be affecting your GI tract, talk to your doctor about alternatives that may be gentler on your stomach. Depending on the drug and the condition it treats, there may be alternatives that can provide relief while still achieving the results you need to stay healthy.
For women, it can be even harder to narrow down the cause of stomach bloating. The natural bloating that may accompany your cycle could mask other underlying issues. Other conditions specific to women such as endometriosis can cause intense discomfort, bloating and other symptoms that do not line up with your cycle. Talking to your gynecologist is an important place to start for many women. They will be able to help you determine if seeking treatment from a GI specialist may be necessary.
Learn More About Bloating
Regardless of whether your bloating is related to dietary factors, or if you might be facing a more serious diagnosis, learning more about the causes and treatment options for bloating is important. If you have been suffering from ongoing bloating that does not respond to dietary or lifestyle changes, make an appointment today with Needham Gastroenterology Associates.