We are all aware of certain sensations in the abdominal region that accompany hunger and satiety. For example, hunger is accompanied by hunger pangs, which may be slightly burning sensations, rumbling noises, or contractions in the gut. After meals, we have a feeling of fullness in the stomach. This feeling of fullness can also transform into a feeling of uncomfortable bloating when we eat too much. All these sensations are normal and do not cause any concerns.
In some cases, a person might start feeling certain abnormal sensations in the stomach or in the general abdominal area. These abnormal sensations include dull aches or pains, excessively loud noises, and very strong contractions of the gut. The term “churning stomach” is used to refer to sensations caused by excessive contractions of the gut. These excessive contractions are technically referred to as hyperperistalsis.
Peristalsis refers to the normal movements of the gut that propel the food through the gastrointestinal tract. These are autonomous movements that we do not usually notice. However, hyperpersistalsis causes strong uncomfortable sensations that are hard to miss. It is important to note that a sensation of churning stomach may not involve the stomach at all, and could be caused by other regions of the gastrointestinal system.
Signs and symptoms
A churning stomach is usually accompanied by other symptoms in the gastrointestinal system. Some of these accompanying symptoms are described below:
- Nausea: Nausea refers to a feeling of vomiting. It is the most common symptom associated with a churning stomach.
- Vomiting: A churning stomach and the accompanying feelings of nausea could lead to actual vomiting.
- Intermittent abdominal cramps: Painful abdominal cramps that occur in bursts can also accompany a churning stomach. These intermittent cramps could indicate a gut infection.
- Bloating: A feeling of excessive fullness of the stomach is referred to as bloating. This feeling can occur even when food hasn’t been consumed for a long period.
- Borborygmi: Rumbling noises coming from the stomach are referred to as borborygmi. These can be loud enough to be heard by others and may occur for a prolonged duration.
- Alternate diarrhea and constipation: Alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation may also accompany a churning stomach.
- Excessive gas: Excessive gas may occur along with the bloating sensation and churning stomach. This is manifested as frequent belching or flatulence.
- Heartburn: In some cases, reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus could lead to the painful sensation of heartburn.
Causes of a churning stomach
There are several potential causes of a churning stomach. These causes can be grouped into two broad categories: acute and chronic. Acute causes occur suddenly and are of short duration. They resolve quickly, either on their own or with treatment. On the other hand, chronic causes appear gradually and persist for a much longer duration. They usually occur for more than three months. In some cases, they may even persist throughout life. Flareups, or acute bursts of symptoms, may also occur intermittently when the cause is of a chronic nature.
- Dyspepsia: Dyspepsia refers to impaired digestion or indigestion. This condition is associated with several factors such as overeating, consumption of oily and spicy foods, alcohol intake, excessive caffeine consumption, anxiety, unpleasant tastes, strong offensive odors, and repulsive images.
- Infections: Infections of the gut that happen in conditions such as cholera, gastroenteritis, and food poisoning are also associated with strong sensations of a churning stomach. These infections affect the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine.
- Drugs: Intake of certain drugs can result in a churning stomach. The offending drugs include both over-the-counter (OTC) medications and prescription drugs. NSAIDs and certain antibiotics are most commonly associated with this symptom.
- Laxatives: Overuse of laxatives to induce gut movements could also result in churning stomach sensations.
- Toxins: Oral poisoning and toxicity by drug overdose are both associated with a churning stomach and other symptoms.
- Motion sickness: Nausea and vomiting are the most common symptoms of motion sickness. A feeling of churning stomach may also occur at times.
- Computer vision syndrome: Prolonged gazing at a computer screen causes a host of symptoms associated with vision and general well being. A churning stomach may also be a part of these constellation of symptoms.
- Diet: Both prolonged hunger pangs as well as strict fasting/dieting regimens are associated with churning stomach.
- Exercise: Excessive exercise, especially in hot and humid weather conditions, can result in churning stomach, nausea and vomiting.
- Pregnancy: Pregnancy, especially the first trimester, is frequently associated with feelings of nausea and churning stomach. These symptoms are normally referred to as “morning sickness”.
- Gallbladder stones: The gallbladder is an important organ of the digestive system. It secretes bile . Gall bladder stones can result in painful symptoms of churning stomach caused by blockage of bile ducts.
- Irritable bowel syndrome: Overactive bowels associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are also associated with churning stomach. This is most commonly seen in diarrhea caused by IBS.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: Acute flareups in inflammatory bowel disease also result in churning stomach symptoms.
- Celiac disease: Celiac disease is caused by an autoimmune reaction to the wheat protein, gluten. Churning of stomach occurs in the patients upon intake of any food containing wheat.
- Lactose intolerance: Inability to digest the lactose sugar present in dairy products is termed as lactose intolerance. It is caused by insufficient synthesis of the lactase enzyme. Consumption of milk and dairy products by individuals suffering from lactose intolerance results in bloating and churning stomach.
- Pancreatic and gallbladder disease: Pancreas and gall bladder play essential roles in the digestion of food in the gastrointestinal tract. Consequently, diseases that prevent proper functioning of these organs leads to impaired digestion and painful stomach churning.
- Adhesions: Adhesions refer to the scar tissues that form after abdominal surgery. These may also be associated with churning movements of the stomach.
- Premenstrual syndrome: Premenstrual syndrome in women can also cause monthly occurrence of nausea, vomiting and stomach churning.
- Gastrointestinal obstruction: Any obstruction to the movement of food in the digestive tract can result in churning movements. The obstruction could either be at the level of the stomach or somewhere along the intestinal tract.
Treatment of a churning stomach
The specific treatment of a churning stomach depends on the underlying cause. Many acute causes resolve on their own and do not require any treatment. In many of the conditions that temporarily result in a churning stomach, home remedies are very popular. These include peppermint and ginger teas, antacids, increased water and fiber intake, effervescent salts, and avoidance of alcohol and caffeinated beverages.
If chronic diseases are the cause of a churning stomach, then appropriate treatment for the underlying disease should be initiated in consultation with a physician. Avoidance of triggers that precipitate the condition is also necessary in dealing with a churning stomach on a long term basis.