You may have used the term “bloated” to describe how you feel after eating a large meal or on days when you’ve been particularly gassy. While these are not wrong uses of the term, bloating in a medical context has a very specific meaning.
Abdominal bloating is when the belly feels full and tight. It can also sometimes relate to a bloated stomach, where the stomach appears swollen, stretched, or “distended.” Bloating in the abdomen or stomach is not unique to any particular condition.
There is a wide variety of causes and some are more worrisome than others. It’s therefore important to learn both the signs of abdominal bloating, possible causes, what you can do about them, and when you should see a medical professional.
Symptoms of Abdominal Bloating
As mentioned, the main symptom of abdominal bloating is a feeling of fullness or tightness in the belly or a swelling of the stomach. The other common symptom is sharp, cramping pains. These pains can occur anywhere in the abdominal or torso area and have been known to change location. At times, the pain can be very intense; some people have even mistaken these pains for a heart attack when they happen in the upper left area of the chest.
Abdominal bloating is often accompanied by excessive gas resulting in extra belching, flatulence, or hiccups as the body tries to disperse it. Sometimes, you may also feel a rumbling or quivering sensation in your abdomen. These are the main symptoms that appear in most cases of abdominal bloating. There are additional signs that will show up depending on what the specific cause is, however.
Causes of Bloated Stomach
There are both mild and serious causes of a bloated stomach. The mild causes can generally be broken up into a few different categories:
- Swallowed air: When you eat or drink, you also draw in air through your mouth. If you consume too quickly, however, you can sometimes take larger gulps of air than your body can manage. Normally, this excess air is just burped back up, but sometimes it makes its way through the digestive tract. This results in bloating, intestinal cramps and, when it reaches the end, flatulence. Infants regularly swallow air when they are fed, which is why burping them is so important.
- Indigestion: Eating too quickly can also result in indigestion as the body tries to manage the surge of food. Not chewing thoroughly results in the stomach struggling to digest the “chunkier” items. In some cases, food can enter the intestines in a partially undigested state. This results in bloating in the stomach or abdominal pain.
- Digestive conditions: Conditions such as lactose intolerance or gastric reflux affect your ability to digest foods. These create similar problems to regular indigestion, including bloating and pain, but have some additional symptoms. Acid reflux, along with heartburn or being lactose intolerant, can sometimes result in vomiting. Celiac disease can also cause bloating in response to gluten.
- Bowel issues: Both constipation and irritable bowel syndrome can present abdominal issues, such as abdominal tightness, swelling, pain, flatulence, and quivering. If your bloating is relieved by a bowel movement, it’s likely one of these is the cause.
- Medicine: Certain oral medications, such as the diabetic medicine acarbose, list bloating as a side effect. If you’re experiencing bloating and are on any medications, check the label.
- Excess sodium: Too much sodium can draw fluid into the abdomen and result in bloating. Sodium helps retain water, so anyone experiencing bloating should keep their sodium intake in mind regardless of whether another cause is identified.
- Dumping syndrome: Despite the name, this has nothing to do with your bowels. Dumping syndrome is most commonly present in people who have undergone certain gastric or stomach surgeries. It occurs when food passes through the stomach too quickly before it finishes digesting. Bloating, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea that is present after eating is usually the main sign. For some people, these occur within a half-hour of eating; in others it can take up to three hours. Some even have a mix of early and late symptoms as well.
The above are all relatively mild causes of bloating or pain in the abdomen or stomach. Most don’t require medical intervention, or at least not urgent intervention. There are, however, several more dangerous causes of these abdominal symptoms that can cause problems if left unaddressed.
- Ascites: This is a term for an abnormal fluid buildup in the abdominal or pelvic area. It causes bloating, and lots of it. Depending on how severe the case of ascites is, a person could look almost pregnant. Like the abdominal bloating itself, ascites is a symptom, not a condition. It can be a sign of anything from hepatitis, to liver disease, to cancer. If the bloating is associated with sudden weight gain, a rapidly expanding waist, or jaundice (yellowing skin/eyes), seek medical help.
- Bowel obstruction: If the bloating happens suddenly and comes with intense abdominal pain and nausea/vomiting, a bowel obstruction needs to be ruled out quickly. Scar tissue, tumors pressing on the bowel, rectal foreign bodies, or other sources could be creating a blockage. This is painful because the bowel will stretch around the area; it is also dangerous, since it can result in a perforation (rupture) that can spill the bowel’s contents into the body.
- Cancer: A tumor pressing against part of the intestine can result in abdominal bloating or even weight loss, as the pressure causes you to feel full more quickly. The exact type of cancer will determine the other symptoms. For instance, ovarian cancer causes pelvic pain, uterine cancer causes watery or bleeding discharge and pain when urinating, colon cancer causes constipation and sometimes bowel obstruction, and pancreatic or liver cancer can cause jaundice or ascites.
You should see a doctor if the bloating is accompanied by vomiting, weight loss, bloody or tar-like stool, an increase in abdominal pain, or diarrhea.
How to Treat Your Bloated Stomach
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, either medical or natural, for treating bloating, since everything depends on the underlying cause. In extreme cases, relieving the bloating could require surgery. In mild ones, it could be as simple as flatulence or just waiting for food to finish digesting.
Having said that, there are several measures you can take to relieve or reduce the chance of developing the milder causes of abdominal and stomach bloating:
- Pay attention to what you’ve been eating when the bloating occurs. This way, you can find out if a certain type of food (dairy, grain, etc.) is triggering it.
- Slow down your eating pace and chew thoroughly.
- Avoid spicy foods and others that can trigger acid reflux.
- Reduce the sodium in your diet.
- Increase the number of probiotics or fiber in your diet.
- Avoid foods that are known to produce gas, such as Brussels sprouts, turnips, and beans.
- Avoid chewing gum, smoking, or using straws. All of these activities can lead to swallowed air.
- Drink more water. This advice only applies if you don’t drink much water normally. If you do, then increasing the amount could cause bloating rather than relieve it.
While it can be embarrassing to talk about feeling bloated or gassy, these symptoms shouldn’t be left unaddressed. If you feel your methods to treat your bloating aren’t working, or if the bloating persists for a long period without dissipating, contact your doctor for a more thorough examination.
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