Most of us use the terms ‘stomach’ and ‘abdomen’ interchangably but the stomach is a specific digestive organ whereas the abdomen is a section of the torso. Therefore when describing stomach conditions or symptoms, it can be confusing as to whether a person is referring to a digestive problem specifically or one involving the abdomen. We discuss stomach spasms from both perspectives – spasm involving the stomach and spasm of the abdomen.
Spasm and Cramps
In most cases we consider spasm and cramps to be one and the same. Therefore the stomach spasms can mean stomach cramps or abdominal cramps. Muscles contract and relax in order to move certain parts of the body. Skeletal muscles are under voluntary control which means we can contract or relax these muscles as we wish. Smooth muscles are under involuntary control by the central nervous system.
Read more on muscle cramps.
When a muscle remains contracted despite trying to relax it, then it is said to be in spasm. Cramps are essentially the same as a spasm. However, the term cramp is usually used to describe a prolonged spasm that is often painful in nature. Both skeletal and smooth muscle may go into spasm or cause cramps.
Causes of Stomach Spasms
There are many possible causes of stomach cramps as well as abdominal cramps. Some of the more common causes have been discussed below. In some instances, a combination of causes may contribute to the stomach spasms. Gynecological disorders resulting in spasm of the uterus and fallopian tubes can also be responsible for abdominal spasms.
Read more on abdominal pain.
The abdominal wall has flat sheets of muscles that move the torso and protect the inner contents of the abdomen. As with muscles anywhere on the body, these muscles may be injured in various ways. Muscle strain is a common problem usually due to overexertion. However, even a blow to the abdomen can cause it to go into spasm. It may also occur with being inactive for too long and then moving, dehydration and stretching beyond its normal range.
Hunger pangs will always occur without eating for a long period of time. Here the muscles of the stomach contract strongly and elicits a cramping ache to signal a person that food is needed. It is quickly relieved upon eating. However, the cramps can be painful in people who suffer with stomach disorders such as gastritis and stomach ulcers. Overeating on the other extreme can also cause stomach spasms as the organ is stretched excessively and the muscles try to counteract this by contracting tightly.
Gastritis and Peptic Ulcers
Gastritis is an inflamed stomach while peptic ulcers are open sores in the stomach and duodenum (first part of the small intestine). While both these conditions usually present wih a dull ache to a gnawing pain, it can somtimes contribute to stomach spasms. This may be in conjunction with other stomach disorders. Both these conditions are more likely to arise with the excessive use of NSAIDs or an infection with the H.pylori bacteria.
Gastrointestinal infections are common. It can affect most of the gut, from the mouth to the rectum. Most of these infections are due to viruses and bacteria but sometimes protozoa can also cause severe infections of the stomach and bowels. The microbe itself or its toxins irritate and injure the gut wall. Abdominal cramps are common with these infections along with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes the antibiotics used to treat the bacterial infections can also cause ongoing diarrhea, and this is known as antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Toxins and Poisons
Most toxins and poisons cause irritate the upper digestive tract. This can elicit vomiting which is a result of strong contractions pushing the gut contents upwards. However, vomiting may not always occur immediately. Instead there may be strong stomach spasms with nausea prior to the vomiting occurring. Alcohol is one such toxin but is usually tolerated in small amounts. Other toxins and poisons may be ingested accidentally and sometime intentionally.
Any obstruction within the stomach or bowels may also lead to painful cramps. This can occur with a foreign object being trapped in the gastrointestinal tract but most of the time the obstruction arises internally. A mass inside the gut or outside it which then compresses on a portion of the gut is more likely to lead to a blockage. Stretching of the bowel wall prevents the muscles from contracting properly to move food along and this then causes an obstruction.
Another possible cause for stomach spasms is a build up of gas in the gut. The accumulation of gas at one spot in the gut can cause stretching of the gut wall. This may cause the muscles to contract and go into spasm to reduce the extent of the stretching. Eventually the gas moves through the gut until it is expelled, either upwards as a belch or downwards in the form of flatus. Passing the gas usually relieves the cramps and discomfort. Most of the time this excessive gas is air but carbonated beverages and gas from bacteria may also be responsible.
In food intolerance, certain nutrients cannot be digested and absorbed. These substances then act as an irritant. It draws water out into the gut, provides residual nutrition for gut microbes that produce gas and leads to symptoms like diarrhea and cramps. Lactose intolerance is the most common type of food intolerance where a person’s body is unable to digest lactose, a the milk sugar. Symptoms typically start a short while after consuming the trigger food.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional bowel disorder where there are abdominal cramps and diarrhea or constipation, or both. These cramps usually involve the bowel walls but could be mistaken for the stomach when it occurs around the middle of the abdomen. The exact cause of IBS is not known but it appears to be due to faster or slower than normal movement through the gut. As a result of the abnormal movement, the muscles of the bowel wall may go into spasm.