Why You Might Have Pain After Eating

Causes of Postprandial Pain

The term "postprandial" means "after eating." Occasional stomach or upper abdominal pain after eating is usually harmless, but frequent pain can be a symptom of several digestive disorders.

It's a good idea to talk with a healthcare provider if your stomach hurts after you eat. Severe pain may require immediate medical care.

This overview covers some of the reasons you might have pain after eating. It also explains when you should see a healthcare professional.

Woman hunched over with stomach pain
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Common Causes

Feeling abdominal pain after eating can be traced to many causes, from overeating to pancreatitis. Pinpointing an exact cause sometimes can be tricky, especially if more than one factor is in play. Still, these common causes ought to get you thinking:

Overeating

Eating too much or eating too fast (which often leads to overeating) are primary triggers for abdominal pain. There are many ways to slow down your pace so that you chew your food thoroughly. Nutritionists often recommend taking a bite, immediately setting your fork down, and chewing completely before picking up the fork again and resuming a meal. They also suggest taking intermittent sips of water, which might also help fill you up.

Food Intolerances, Allergies

Many people confuse food allergies and food intolerances, particularly because the symptoms can be similar. They include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Food intolerances are caused by the body's inability to digest a certain ingredient in food. For example, a lack of the enzyme lactase causes lactose intolerance. Consuming smaller portions or a lactose-free version can help relieve abdominal pain. It's worth a try.

People with food allergies must avoid certain foods or ingredients entirely because they can set off an abnormal immune response. The most common food allergies are those to eggs, milk, peanuts, crustacean shellfish, and wheat.

You may have your suspicions—and you may be right—but make an appointment with your healthcare provider so they can forge a correct diagnosis. It's the first step in coming up with a plan that just might change your life.

Dyspepsia

Pain or burning in the middle of your upper abdomen is sometimes called epigastric pain or dyspepsia. These are two names for indigestion. Dyspepsia may also cause:

  • A feeling of being full early in a meal
  • Bloating
  • Nausea

About 20% to 30% of people with dyspepsia are diagnosed with an underlying health condition. This is why it's crucial to see a medical provider. If by some chance your healthcare provider can't find a specific cause, you may have what's called functional dyspepsia. This is a type of functional gastrointestinal disorder, which means there's no clear structural problem or disease, but the digestive tract isn't functioning normally.

These conditions can include:

  • Epigastric pain syndrome (EPS), or when epigastric pain or burning is the main symptom
  • Postprandial distress syndrome (PDS), or when you feel full early in a meal

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a health condition in which acid flows from your stomach back up to the esophagus, the tube that leads to your mouth. GERD causes:

  • Burning (heartburn) in the esophagus
  • Pain when you swallow
  • Tasting acid or undigested food in the throat or mouth

Many people have reflux symptoms from time to time. People with GERD have symptoms regularly. Acid can damage the esophagus, so it's good to talk with your healthcare provider if you experience reflux often.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can cause pain after eating. It often starts in the upper abdomen and spreads around to the back. You may also have nausea and vomiting. The most common cause of pancreatitis is gallstones. Genetics, drinking alcohol, and smoking can also raise your risk.

If you have pancreatitis, you should seek immediate medical care if you have:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Severe pain in the abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Yellowish color of the skin or in the whites of the eyes, called jaundice

Any one of these signs could signal that you have an infection or a dangerous blockage.

Gallstones

Gallstones can sometimes give you pain after eating. This is especially true if the meal was large or high in fat. Some people have gallbladder pain on an empty stomach. It can even wake them from sleep. Pain like this is sometimes called biliary colic.

It's important to have this kind of pain checked out. If your gallbladder is inflamed, it can be serious. You may even need surgery.

Gallstone pain can be:

  • In the middle or the right side of your upper abdomen
  • Behind your sternum
  • In your upper back or right shoulder
  • Gripping or gnawing

Other symptoms of gallstones include nausea and vomiting.

Peptic Ulcer

Peptic ulcers are sores on the lining of the stomach or duodenum, which is the first part of your intestines. If you have pain after you eat, it may mean the ulcer is in your stomach. These are known as gastric ulcers.

If the pain happens anywhere between your breastbone (sternum) and your belly button, it may be a peptic ulcer. These ulcers can hurt even when your stomach is empty.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen can lead to peptic ulcers, especially if you take them for a long time.

Many ulcers are caused by common stomach bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). It is important to treat H. pylori. If you don't, it can lead to certain cancers of the gut.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome is a health condition in which people have chronic (persistent) abdominal pain. The pain is related to bowel movements rather than eating. However, eating can trigger strong intestinal contractions that feel painful.

Pain from IBS can occur in the upper, middle, and lower parts of the belly. It can also spread to the upper parts of the torso. Up to 30% of people who have dyspepsia also have IBS.

Less Common Causes

Some less common health conditions may also cause pain after eating. They include:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Pain in the body means something is wrong. If you feel pain after eating every once in a while and it doesn't keep you from functioning, you may want to mention it to your healthcare provider at your next visit.

If you regularly have pain after eating, it is vital that you make an appointment with your healthcare provider right away. The right diagnosis is the first step toward a treatment plan.

Seek emergency care if you have severe pain along with any of these symptoms:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Jaundice
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Severe vomiting

Summary

Many different digestive problems can cause pain after you eat. Indigestion, GERD, gallstones, IBS, and pancreatitis are some of the more common causes. There are some less common causes, too. Some are serious, including cancer.

If you experience pain every now and then, there may not be any cause for concern. If it happens often, it's important to get a diagnosis right away. Some of the conditions that cause pain after eating are serious and need to be treated.

If you have severe pain with fever, vomiting, chills, fast heartbeat, or yellow eyes and skin, treat it as a medical emergency.

A Word From Verywell

Don't be surprised if your healthcare provider recommends that you embrace a high-fiber diet—no matter what may be causing your abdominal pain. Research shows time and again that a high-fiber diet protects against chronic illness and diseases and is good for "gut health." If nothing else, fiber is likely to keep you regular. Just be careful not to overdo it; too much fiber can land you right back to where you started, with abdominal pain, bloating, and gas. Your healthcare provider should be able to help you strike the right balance with fiber intake.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is stomach pain after eating treated at home?

    At-home treatment options depend on the issue. You may consider an over-the-counter medication for gas or diarrhea or NSAID pain relievers for mild stomach cramps. Drinking water, mint or ginger tea, avoiding spicy foods and bubbly beverages, and eating smaller meals slowly may help you avoid stomach pain or give you some relief.

  • Can pregnancy cause postprandial pain?

    Pregnancy does not necessarily cause this kind of pain by itself. However, pregnancy increases the chance of gallstones and GERD.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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