GastroIntestinal / Gastroenterology

Why do I have muscle spasms in my stomach?

Stomach spasms occur when muscles in the stomach or intestines contract. These spasms can range in intensity and duration.

Most cases of stomach spasms do not damage the body, but they may indicate an underlying condition that needs attention.

Learn more about stomach spasms in this article, including their causes and the available treatment options.

Ten causes of stomach spasms

The following conditions are all known to cause stomach spasms:

1. Constipation

Lady holding stomach with possible stomach spasms
There are many possible causes for stomach spasms, including gas, muscle strain, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation.

Cramps and spasms are common symptoms of constipation.

Other symptoms include:

  • having few bowel movements (usually less than three a week)
  • passing small or hard stools
  • stomach bloating
  • straining to pass stool

2. Dehydration

Dehydration can cause an imbalance of electrolytes in the body (particularly sodium and potassium). Muscles require these nutrients to function correctly, so they may begin to seize up and spasm when they do not have enough.

Additional symptoms of dehydration are:

  • dark urine
  • dizziness
  • extreme thirst
  • headache

3. Gas

Too much gas in the stomach may lead to spasms as the muscles in the intestines strain to let out the gas.

Excess gas can also cause:

  • bloating
  • feelings of fullness
  • stomach pains

4. Gastritis and gastroenteritis

Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach, while gastroenteritis involves inflammation of both the stomach and the intestines. These conditions are typically caused by infections.

Gastritis and gastroenteritis may also cause the following symptoms:

  • bloating
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea (in cases of gastroenteritis only)

5. Ileus and gastroparesis

Digested food passes through the body’s intestines thanks to wave-like muscle contractions called peristalsis. When peristalsis slows down or stops at any stage of the intestines, it is referred to as an ileus.

Several things can cause ileus, including:

  • infection
  • inflammation
  • lack of activity
  • surgery
  • use of narcotics

Other symptoms of ileus include:

  • abdominal discomfort
  • nausea
  • vomiting

An ileus that involves the stomach is known as gastroparesis. This can also cause stomach spasms, especially after meals.

6. Infectious colitis

Colitis refers to inflammation of the colon (large intestine). There are many types of colitis. If the inflammation is caused by an infection, it is referred to as infectious colitis.

In addition to stomach spasms, the symptoms of infectious colitis include:

  • dehydration
  • diarrhea
  • frequent bowel movements

Infectious colitis may be caused by consuming contaminated food or water that contains pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, or Giardia.

7. Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease or IBD is the term given to a group of chronic conditions involving inflammation of the digestive tract. IBD affects up to 1.6 million people in the United States.

The most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both conditions cause spasms and other symptoms, including:

  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • the urge to pass stool frequently
  • weight loss

8. Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional digestive disorder, which means that the digestive tract appears undamaged, but it still causes symptoms.

It affects 10 to 15 percent of people worldwide, making it the most common functional digestive disorder.

Along with stomach spasms, IBS causes:

  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • gas

9. Ischemic enteritis and colitis

When poor blood supply causes inflammation of the large intestine, it is termed ischemic colitis. When this issue affects the small intestine, is it called ischemic enteritis.

Both conditions lead to stomach spasms and other symptoms, including:

  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting

10. Muscle strain

Working the abdominal muscles too hard or too often can lead to stomach spasms. People who regularly do crunches and sit-ups may be most at risk.

Other muscle strain symptoms are:

  • pain that is made worse by movement
  • tender muscles


Stomach spasms during pregnancy

Changes in the body that occur during pregnancy can lead to stomach spasms. Most cases of stomach spasms during pregnancy are not a cause for concern. However, women who experience regular spasms or spasms that are painful should see a doctor.

The following can cause spasms during pregnancy:

Braxton-Hicks contractions

Pregnant woman holding her stomach with possible stomach spasms
Braxton-Hicks contractions may be a cause of stomach spasms in pregnant women.

Braxton-Hicks are known false labor. Contractions typically occur in the third trimester, although they may begin in the second trimester in some cases.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are when the uterine muscles tense and tighten for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before releasing. The contractions tend to be:

  • infrequent
  • irregular in intensity
  • more uncomfortable than painful

Contractions that ease up rather than get worse are most likely Braxton-Hicks contractions, especially if they occur earlier than the expected labor.

Gas

Many pregnant women experience gas as a result of increased levels of the hormone progesterone in the body.

While progesterone is necessary for a healthy pregnancy, it also causes the intestinal muscles to relax, which slows down digestion and leads to a buildup of gas.

Stretching muscles

The muscles of the stomach and uterus stretch throughout pregnancy to accommodate the growing baby. As the muscles stretch, they may spasm slightly or cause twinges of pain.

Some level of muscle pain and spasming is a normal part of pregnancy, but pain that is severe or accompanied by bleeding or fever requires urgent medical attention.

The baby moving

When the growing baby kicks or moves, it can feel like a spasm, especially in the second trimester. Usually, these kicks are stronger and more pronounced in the third trimester and will be different from a spasm.


Diagnosis

A doctor may diagnose the underlying cause of stomach spasms based on:

  • physical examination
  • medical history
  • blood tests
  • imaging tests, such as an ultrasound or CT scan

They will also ask a person about their symptoms, when they started, and whether the spasms have any triggers.

A doctor may ask a person to keep a log of when the spasms occur, what they ate that day, and if they did any physical activity to help determine the cause.


When to see a doctor

In many cases, stomach spasms will resolve on their own and are not cause for concern. However, stomach spasms that are severe or frequent can indicate a more serious condition that should be investigated.

If a person experiences any of the following symptoms, they should seek immediate medical treatment:

  • blood in the stool
  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • emotional distress due to spasms
  • fever
  • severe pain
  • vomiting
  • skin that appears yellow
  • weight loss

Treatment

The treatment for stomach spasms will depend on the underlying cause. Possible options include:

Home remedies

Woman drinking a sports drink after jogging
Staying hydrated and drinking sports drinks in moderation may be recommended to treat stomach spasms.

Many people get relief from stomach spasms with home remedies. Pregnant women should speak with their doctor before using home remedies, as they may not be suitable or safe for use during pregnancy.

Some home remedies that may be effective include:

  • Rest. People who are experiencing spasms due to muscle strain may find relief by resting the stomach muscles and avoiding abdominal exercises.
  • Heat. Applying a heat pack or hot water bottle to the stomach can relax the muscles and ease spasms.
  • Massage. Gently massaging the stomach muscles can improve blood flow and ease cramps and spasms.
  • Hydration. Drinking plenty of water can help avoid dehydration, which may cause stomach spasms or make them worse. Sports drinks that replenish electrolytes may also help but should be used in moderation, as they are often high in sugar.
  • Epsom salt baths. Warm baths using Epsom salts are a popular home remedy for many cramps and spasms. The warm water relaxes the muscles and Epsom salts are high in magnesium, which helps muscular cramps.

Medication

Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available for stomach spasms. The medication used will depend on the underlying cause of the stomach spasms.

Types of medications that may be recommended include:

  • Aminosalicylates and corticosteroids. These drugs may be used to treat forms of IBD.
  • Antacids or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These medications reduce the levels of stomach acid that may be contributing to gastritis-related spasms.
  • Antibiotics. These can be prescribed for bacterial infections that cause gastritis or gastroenteritis.
  • Antispasmodic medications. People with IBS may experience a reduction in spasms when using these drugs.
  • Pain relievers. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help alleviate pain.


Prevention

The following steps can help prevent stomach spasms from occurring:

Staying hydrated. Dehydration leads to stomach spasms, so it is important to drink enough fluids. Higher levels of fluids may also be needed in hot weather and during intense exercise.

Exercising correctly. Do not overwork the muscles, as this can lead to spasms and injuries. Using proper form when carrying out exercises, staying hydrated throughout, and scheduling regular rest periods can help prevent spasms.

Avoiding problematic foods. Some foods are known to cause digestive distress and lead to stomach spasms and other symptoms. Consider limiting alcohol intake, spicy foods, and high-fat foods.

Making other dietary changes if necessary. People with gastritis, IBS, and IBD may find that making dietary changes eases their symptoms. For example, limiting fiber intake can reduce painful gas. It can be helpful to work with a doctor or dietitian to determine what to eat and avoid.

Managing underlying conditions. Stomach spasms that are related to conditions such as IBS or IBD may disappear or lessen once the condition is kept under control through medication, lifestyle changes, or both.

Outlook

The outlook for people with stomach spasms depends on the underlying cause. Stomach spasms often resolve with minimal or no treatment. However, other times they require medical attention.

To improve the outlook, a person should consult a doctor quickly if stomach spasms persist or get worse, or if they are accompanied by bloody stools, fever, or vomiting.

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