Woke Up with Stomach Pain? Here’s What to Do Next

"Stomachache" is a vague symptom, so it can be hard to know how to start treating it. These steps will help guide you through soothing the pain.

Head to the bathroom

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Pinpointing what's behind a stomachache can be hard, but pain in the lower abdominal area could be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome, says Steven Fleisher, MD, chief of gastroenterology and director of interventional endoscopy at the Center for Digestive Disease at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. The cramping you’re feeling is probably your digestive system trying to kick-start after a night of sleeping, but a trip to the bathroom should help. “The hallmark is that once you get to the bathroom and are able to have a bowel movement, typically the pain or discomfort is relieved as part of the process,” he says.

Call the doctor

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Because stomachaches are such a vague symptom, calling a medical expert could help you figure out if you need to worry. Depending on factors like the location and sensation of your pain, a doctor can advise whether you should go to the ER, make an appointment with your general practitioner, or start with some at-home treatments, says Jonathan Cohen, MD, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone School of Medicine and partner at Concorde medical group. “There’s no downside to calling your general doctor and talking it over,” he says. “Doctors, by asking a few questions, can help make a better, smarter decision as to whether it’s an alarm.” Definitely call your doctor immediately if your pain is severe, basic remedies don’t help, you have bloody diarrhea or vomit, or being sick is making you lightheaded, Dr. Fleisher says. Don't miss these guide to what different stomach pains mean.

Ask if your dining partners are on the same boat

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Fear food poisoning? If you ate at a restaurant, you might hear on the news that others got sick too. Check in with your family or anyone else you ate dinner with to see if they’re feeling symptoms. “Often, more than one person will be afflicted,” says Dr. Fleisher. Here's how to avoid food poisoning from commonly contaminated foods.

Consider calling your boss

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There are a few factors to consider when deciding if you should call in sick. If the stomach pain is nothing new (even if it’s a bit worse than usual) or OTC medications seem to be working, you could probably handle a day in the office. But if the stomachache feels atypical or symptoms could be stomach flu, take the day off. “If pain is sudden and out of the blue, that should give one pause,” says Dr. Fleisher. “Especially it’s severe, you might want to check in with your provider before heading in to work.” Use these rules for calling in sick.

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Make yourself breakfast

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No need to skip breakfast if a stomachache is your only symptom and the thought of eating doesn’t make you queasy. Getting something in your stomach could help ease any tummy troubles, says Dr. Cohen. But hold off on your usual greasy egg sandwich, says David Greenwald, MD, director of clinical gastroenterology and endoscopy at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Stick to things that are more bland or simple to digest,” he says. He suggests avoiding foods that are bad for digestion by spreading toast with jelly instead of oily butter, and swapping out complex multigrain dry cereals for simple oatmeal.

Skip that second cup of coffee

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Don’t worry, we won’t ask you to give up coffee altogether, but if acid reflux is causing your belly issues, consider cutting down. Caffeine is a double whammy in people with digestive issues, says Dr. Fleisher. For one thing, it can relax pressure on the valve between the esophagus and stomach, making it easier for the acid to splash back up. Plus, it makes the intestine work harder, which could lead to diarrhea, he says. If you think coffee could be the culprit, try eliminating it for a week, suggests Dr. Greenwald. “The only way to know is to limit it for a defined period of time and see if the symptoms get better,” he says. “It’s hard to say ‘don’t do it forever,’ but it’s easy to do for a week.” That said, if you’re constipated and bloated, the caffeine could actually help things move along naturally so you can get relief from a bathroom break quicker, says Dr. Cohen.

Hop on the treadmill

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Exercise helps digestive problems, so following through with your morning workout could actually relieve those tummy issues, says Dr. Fleisher. Just don’t push your body if the pain makes movement unbearable. “You would want to exercise only if you were able to have the pain somewhat relieved before embarking on anything strenuous,” he says. If the pain isn’t going away, hold off on physical activity until you know what’s wrong and can treat it.

Start off strong

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Look to OTC medications for some relief. Dr. Fleisher recommends going straight for proton-pump inhibitors—or the “big guns,” as he calls them. PPIs such as Prilosec or Nexium reduce acid by blocking an enzyme in stomach walls. As long as you take them for only 10 to 14 days, “they are probably pretty safe and probably most effective, and give you the most bang for your buck,” he says. Stop taking the medication and talk to your doctor if you get side effects like diarrhea, worsened stomach pain, or muscle cramping. Find out the best OTC pain reliever for every ache here.

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Try an anti-gas drug

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The OTC anti-gas drug simethicone, in name brands like Gas-X and Phazyme, can ease your stomachache when you’re feeling gassy. “It basically just bursts bubbles,” says Dr. Greenwald. “So if you get a glass of water with a bunch of bubbles, it breaks up the bubbles, and it basically does the same thing in your stomach.” Because your body doesn’t absorb simethicone, the medication doesn’t have any common side effects, so you can use it four times a day without concern, he says.

Pop an antacid

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For an OTC option that isn’t so severe, give an antacid a try. “They are probably going to take the edge of some symptoms and give some immediate relief,” says Dr. Fleisher. But they’re targeting the symptom, not any underlying condition, so talk to your doctor if the pain doesn’t get better. Don't miss these OTC medication mistakes you might be making.

Try a natural home remedy

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Peppermint oil, ginger, and turmeric could ease your pain if you’re dealing with gas and bloating. “They help the stomach empty and help food absorption,” says Dr. Cohen. If your problems are from acid reflux, though, peppermint could actually make your symptoms worse, warns Dr. Greenwald. In that case, try these home remedies for heartburn instead.

Heat things up

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A heating pad can help relieve a stomachache, especially if it’s from severe IBS pain, says Dr. Fleisher. Consider replacing an old-fashioned water bottle, which can get too hot and burn your skin if you’re not careful, with a newer model. “Microwavable bean bags are proving quite effective in milder situations where we have oftentimes chronic pain in the form of IBS,” he says. Find out more about heat therapy here.

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