When to Take Stomach Pain and other GI Issues Seriously

Everyone experiences stomach pain or other gastrointestinal (GI) issues from time-to-time. Many times, these can be minor issues that resolve themselves over time. However, if you or a loved one are experiencing troubling gut pain for more than a few days, it might be time for you to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider or a gastroenterologist. Common GI issues include food poisoning, a stomach virus, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, or any number of other conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

The information below will help you understand your symptoms and provide tools for you to find a physician and share your GI symptoms with them. Below are descriptions for the most frequently experienced symptoms of IBD. 


Jump to:

Abdominal pain | Change in bowel movement frequency | Chronic diarrhea | Chronic constipation | Urgent bowel movements | Bloody bowel movements | Mucus in stool | Tenesmus | Nausea/vomiting | Other symptoms | Find care

Abdominal pain and stomach cramps


Woman lying on couch with stomach ache

It is normal to have abdominal pain from time-to-time, caused by gas, stomach bugs, or even food poisoning. However, if you or a loved one is experiencing abdominal pain that you would describe as intense, crampy, and the pain doesn’t go away in a day or two, or has been present on and off for weeks or longer, it’s time to see a healthcare provider to find out what’s wrong.

Change in bowel movement frequency 

There is no magic number of bowel movements we should all be having each day. Some people go three-to-four times a day, and that is normal for them. Others only move their bowels once a day and that is their normal. However, if you or a loved one experiences a significant change in bowel movement frequency, whether more or less often, it’s important to discuss this change with your healthcare provider.

Chronic diarrhea

We have all had diarrhea (loose or watery stool) at one time or another. It is unpleasant but usually resolves itself quickly. However, if you or a loved one is experiencing diarrhea frequently over several weeks, or if you are having loose stools multiple times a day, you should see a healthcare provider. You may want to consult with a gastroenterologist (a healthcare provider that specializes in GI issues) if your normal bowel movement frequency increases and if your stool is loose, watery or is accompanied by symptoms such as urgency or fatigue. 

Chronic constipation, or constipation alternating with diarrhea

It is normal to occasionally feel constipated—having difficulty moving bowels or infrequent bowel movements. There are a variety of reasons why someone may experience occasional constipation. But if you or a loved one is frequently experiencing constipation, or constipation alternating with diarrhea, it is important to see a healthcare provider or gastroenterologist. Your healthcare provider will be able to run tests to determine the cause of the constipation and recommend for the best course of treatment for you or your loved one.

Urgent bowel movements


Person walking into public restroom

Most people will at some point experience an urgent need to move their bowels and race to the bathroom. It can be stressful, especially when it's hard to find a nearby restroom. If you experience this kind of urgency on a regular basis, or if find you are unable to hold back the bowel movement before reaching the bathroom, you should see a healthcare provider or gastroenterologist.

Bloody bowel movements or blood on toilet paper

There is nothing scarier than going to the bathroom and seeing blood in the toilet or on the toilet paper. Bloody bowel movements or blood on toilet paper can be caused by several things, including anal fissures (small tear in anal canal), hemorrhoids (swollen, sometimes painful dilated veins on the inside or outside of your bottom), and other GI conditions, including IBD. If you are experiencing blood with bowel movements, you should schedule a visit to a gastroenterologist.

Mucus in stool

Mucus is a normal slippery and stringy fluid that is produced by many tissues in your body including your gut. Seeing some mucus in your stool is normal, especially after a gastrointestinal infection. However, if you or a loved one is seeing mucus in your stool regularly and/or you are experiencing pain or any of the symptoms above, it is time to consult your healthcare provider or a gastroenterologist. 

Feeling of incomplete bowel evacuation (tenesmus)

Have you ever thought you had to go to the bathroom and then got there and nothing came out? This feeling or sensation is called tenesmus. Tenesmus can have many causes, so it is important to discuss this feeling with your healthcare provider or gastroenterologist.

Feeling nauseous or vomiting


Man eating breakfast, experiencing stomach distress

At some point in your life, you will feel nauseous (an uneasiness or queasiness of the abdomen) which can be accompanied by vomiting (also known as throwing up). The reasons we feel nauseous and/or vomit are many, including motion sickness, overeating, gastrointestinal infection, or a bowel obstruction (blockage). If you or a loved one frequently feels nauseous with or without vomiting, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.  

Other symptoms to discuss with your healthcare provider

It is also common to experience other symptoms when living with IBD. Sometimes, these can occur before you experience any GI issues. If you notice any of the following, you should speak with your healthcare provider to figure out the cause.

 

Pain outside of the gut

Bodily aches and pains are a regular part of life. However, if you or a loved one is experiencing pain in your joints (like the knees, elbows, or fingers) along with some of the GI symptoms above, it is important to mention this during your appointment with your healthcare provider. Sharing this information will help guide your healthcare provider to the next steps in understanding what is causing your GI symptoms and pain. Sometimes, such as in some cases of IBD, certain kinds of gut problems can be accompanied by pain outside the gut.

You may also be experiencing other symptoms like joint pain or uveitis (inflammation of the eye). Learn more about the extraintestinal symptoms (symptoms outside of the GI tract).

Fatigue

Everyone gets tired and feels run down occasionally. Feeling fatigued is different from being tired. Fatigue is long lasting and is often expressed by feeling tired all the time, or feeling sleepy, weak, and lacking energy for work, school, or other everyday activities. It is important to let your healthcare provider know how long you have felt fatigued and how it has impacted your daily life. 

Loss of appetite (not wanting to eat)

If you are feeling nauseous or vomiting, it is normal to lose your appetite. No one wants to eat when they are fearful of being sick. If not wanting to eat is accompanied by a gastrointestinal infection or overindulgence in food or drink, this is nothing to be concerned about. However, if you or a loved one are unable to eat due to loss of appetite, it’s important to discuss this symptom with your healthcare provider, including letting the doctor know how long you've been without an appetite. 

Weight loss

Unintentional weight loss is an important symptom to mention to your healthcare provider. Be sure to mention if the unintentional weight loss was also accompanied by loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or any of the other symptoms on this page. 

Failure to grow (children and teens)

In children, failing to meet height and weight milestones is concerning. If your child is also experiencing pain, diarrhea, or other symptoms mentioned here it’s important to discuss these with your healthcare provider. Your pediatrician may want to refer you and your child to a pediatric gastroenterologist if your child isn’t meeting their pediatric growth milestones.

Sharing your symptoms


Doctor and patient talking

If you’ve experienced any of the symptoms listed above, it is important to tell your healthcare provider. When describing your GI and other symptoms, please share all your symptoms and how long you have been experiencing them. This information is important and will help your healthcare provider determine what tests or actions should be taken next.  

You may find it helpful to use a symptom tracker before your appointment to record all your GI and other symptoms. The Foundation offers an IBD symptom tracker which you can use when visiting your healthcare provider or a gastroenterologist. Please note this tracker is specific to IBD, so you may want to use the open space to note other symptoms that may not be included in this resource. 

How do I find a healthcare provider?

If you experience any of the symptoms outlined above, please consult with your healthcare provider. If you need a gastroenterologist who specializes in IBD, we are here to help—our Find a Medical Expert tool is a great place to start. There are many factors that go into finding the right gastroenterologist. You may want to consider the following questions and preferences when selecting your gastroenterologist:

 

Personal preferences

You may want to consider the following personal questions as you look for a gastroenterologist:

  1. How far are you willing to travel to see the gastroenterologist?
  2. Does the healthcare provider or office staff need to speak a second language?
  3. Do you have a preference when it comes to your physician's gender?
Insurance

It is important to understand your insurance coverage when seeking a gastroenterologist for the first time or for a second opinion. You may want to consider the following questions before your make an appointment:

  1. Does your insurance require a referral from your primary care provider to a gastroenterologist?
  2. Is the gastroenterologist in your insurance network?
  3. Does your insurance have a higher co-pay for specialists?
  4. How much of my deductible has been met? 

The Foundation has additional insurance information that may be useful as you plan a healthcare provider visit; please visit our Financial and Insurance Information  pages for more information. You can also contact our IBD Help Center at [email protected] or 1-888-MY-GUT-PAIN with specific questions.

Questions to ask the GI office

When selecting your gastroenterologist, you may consider the following questions:

  1. Is the healthcare provider board certified?
  2. What are their specialties? 
    • Some physicians have an expertise in liver diseases, IBS, or IBD.  You can find a healthcare provider’s specialty by visiting their website or asking the office staff when calling.
  3. Do they work with other gastroenterologists or GI surgeons who they can consult with?
Visit our Find a Medical Expert directory

The Foundation offers a listing of healthcare professionals including adult and pediatric gastroenterologists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nutritionists, and mental health clinicians on our Find a Medical Expert Directory. Each professional listed has expressed an interest in IBD by becoming a member of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. If you need additional assistance finding a gastroenterologist, please contact the IBD Help Center; they will provide additional guidance and suggestions for locating a healthcare provider.