Gastrointestinal Symptoms to Never Ignore

Verywell Health

Gastrointestinal Symptoms to Never Ignore

Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH – April 1, 2024

Medically reviewed by Kumkum S. Patel MD, MPH

Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms affect most people from time to time. The gastrointestinal tract is the body’s digestive system. Common GI symptoms include bloating, indigestion, and heartburn. Other symptoms that may indicate a health problem may include sudden abdominal pain, constant diarrhea, and bloody stool.

This article discusses serious GI symptoms that should never be ignored, their possible causes, and what to do about them.

<p>Kate Wieser / Getty Images</p>
Kate Wieser / Getty Images
Stomach Cramps

Stomach cramps are a common GI symptom that often feels like a dull, aching pain. The discomfort may be constant or come and go. Common causes of stomach cramps include constipation, gas, diarrhea, a virus, hormonal medication, a menstrual period, pregnancy, and ovulation.

Serious causes of stomach cramps may include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): a condition that causes diarrhea, constipation, and cramping
  • Gallstones: hard deposits that block the bile ducts and may cause cramping and pain
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis cause chronic inflammation in the GI tract, stomach cramping, and pain
  • Kidney stones: hard deposits that may become lodged in the urinary tract or ureter
  • Diverticulitis: occurs when small sacs or pouches in the colon become inflamed and cause pain and cramping
  • Appendicitis: an inflammation of the appendix that causes significant abdominal pain and cramping
  • Pancreatitis: an inflammation of the pancreas that causes abdominal pain, cramping, and vomiting
  • Endometriosis: when endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus and causes significant pain and cramping during the menstrual cycle
Swollen Belly

If you notice a swollen belly, it is likely due to bloating. Common causes of bloating are gas, indigestion, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), IBS, or lactose intolerance, which causes bloating, gas, and diarrhea after ingesting lactose (dairy products).

Serious causes of a swollen belly include:

  • IBD
  • Ascites: a buildup of fluid in the abdomen caused by chronic liver disease
  • Gallstones
  • Pancreatitis
  • Ovarian cyst: a fluid-filled sac on or in the ovary that causes abdominal pain and swelling

Related: Digestive System Diseases

Bloody Vomit

Bloody vomit indicates bleeding somewhere in your digestive tract. Never ignore bloody vomit because the cause of the bleeding requires treatment. Possible causes of bloody vomit include:

  • Bleeding ulcer: a sore on the lining of the stomach or small intestine that may bleed and cause vomiting
  • Chronic pancreatitis: may lead to bleeding in the upper part of the GI tract
  • Tumor: a tumor in the GI tract may irritate the tissues and cause bleeding
  • Traumatic injury: an injury to the abdominal area that may lead to internal bleeding (see a healthcare provider immediately if this happens)
  • Esophageal varices: swollen veins in cirrhotic patients
Belly Button Pain

Pain around your belly button usually indicates a mild condition like indigestion or constipation. Serious causes of belly button pain may include:

  • Abdominal wall hernia: occurs when part of an organ protrudes (sticks through) an area of muscle, leading to pain around the belly button
  • Crohn’s disease: causes inflammation and pain around the belly button
  • Appendicitis
  • Gallstones
  • Pancreatitis
  • Bowel obstruction: occurs when the intestine is blocked and stool cannot pass through
  • Bowel perforation: a hole that develops in the stomach or colon
Bloody Stool or Urine

Blood in the stool or urine means you are bleeding somewhere in your lower GI or urinary tract. A small amount of bright red blood with straining may indicate hemorrhoids. Serious causes of bloody stool may include:

  • Anal fissure: a small tear in the lining of the rectum that causes drops of red blood when you wipe after using the bathroom
  • Diverticulitis: a condition that can lead to diverticular bleeding
  • Infectious colitis: an infection in the colon that causes inflammation and bleeding
  • Colon polyps: growths on the lining of the colon and rectum that may become irritated and start bleeding
  • Colorectal cancer: cancer of the colon or rectum in which cancerous growths may cause bleeding

A small amount of blood in the urine after a procedure on the bladder or urinary tract is common. For example, you may experience a small amount of bleeding after having a catheter. People who menstruate may notice blood in their urine caused by their menstrual period. Serious causes of bloody urine may include:

Pain in the Upper Stomach

Pain in the upper area of your stomach may indicate indigestion or heartburn. Sudden upper abdominal pain may indicate a problem with the organs located in that area. The stomach, pancreas, spleen, liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts are in the upper abdomen. Serious causes of upper stomach pain may include:

  • Stomach ulcer: may cause pain in the upper stomach
  • Pancreatitis
  • Splenomegaly: an enlarged spleen may cause upper abdominal pain
  • Gallstones
  • Cholecystitis: an inflammation of the gallbladder that often causes nausea and upper abdominal pain
  • Hepatitis: Inflammation of the liver is usually caused by an infection; one sign of hepatitis is upper abdominal pain
  • Cancer: cancer of the stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, or bile ducts may cause pain
Lower Right Abdominal Pain

Pain in the lower abdominal area may indicate constipation, diarrhea, or menstrual cramps. If you notice pain localized in the right side of the lower abdomen, it may be your appendix. Lower right quadrant pain could mean inflammation in your appendix (appendicitis). Rarely, it could indicate appendix cancer.

Constantly Feeling Full

Feeling full without eating or after eating only a small amount is not normal. Temporary causes of feeling very full could be eating habits, indigestion, or constipation. More serious causes of constantly feeling full may include:

  • IBS
  • Ulcer
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): occurs when contents from the stomach come back up the esophagus; this can cause you to feel full
  • Gastroparesis: a disorder that causes the stomach to empty slowly
  • Gastritis: an inflammation of the stomach lining that may cause you to feel full
  • Pancreatitis
Black Stool

Black stool usually means that there is bleeding in the digestive tract. Certain foods and supplements, such as blueberries or iron supplements, can make stool appear darker. Black stool could mean esophagus, stomach, or small intestine bleeding. It may also mean that you have a bleeding ulcer. 

Sudden Pulsing Pain

It is possible to feel a pulsing sensation in the abdomen because of a large blood vessel called the abdominal aorta. You may feel the abdominal aorta pulse when there is more blood flow due to pregnancy, eating, or positioning (lying down). An abdominal aortic aneurysm could cause sudden pulsing pain in the abdomen. 

Strong Hunger Pangs

It is normal to feel hunger pangs when you have gone a long time without eating. Hunger is your body’s way of communicating that it is time to eat. Common causes of hunger pangs include hunger, dehydration, and constipation. Serious causes of intense hunger pangs may include:

  • IBS
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Anxiety: causes physical symptoms, including stomach discomfort and intestinal spasms that may feel like hunger pangs
  • Medications: including antidepressants, antipsychotics, diabetes medications, steroids, and anticonvulsants (seizure medications), which can cause hunger and weight gain
Constant Diarrhea

Most people experience diarrhea or loose stools from time to time. If you have been experiencing constant or chronic diarrhea, see a healthcare provider. The types of diarrhea that may indicate a health problem include:

  • Watery: may be caused by an infection, food poisoning, or IBS
  • Fatty: usually means that your body has a problem breaking down fats in the diet; causes may include celiac diseasesmall intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), or gastric bypass surgery
  • Inflammatory: occurs when the colon is inflamed from infection, IBD, diverticulitis, or cancer
  • Bloody: indicates inflammation or colon cancer

Gastrointestinal symptoms are common and often include heartburn, indigestion, bloating, and cramping. Other GI symptoms are more serious and may indicate a health problem. If you ever experience bleeding with vomiting, urinating, or releasing stool, see a healthcare provider. Seek medical attention if you notice sudden abdominal pain that does not improve.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.