Important parts of the digestive tract can be found in the upper abdomen. If there is a health issue with any of these body parts, eating certain foods might trigger pain in the upper stomach.
Some other organs (like the kidney or spleen), that are not part of the digestive tract are also located here. Any problem with these organs might also cause pain after having a meal.
Upper left stomach pain after eating
The upper left side of the stomach (also called left upper quadrant, LUQ) houses these organs:
- pancreas (a large part of it, and it’s not an organ, but a gland)
- part of the colon
- a small part of the liver
Pancreatitis and upper left abdominal pain
Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas. This gland produces enzymes that help with digestion and also produces hormones (e.g. insulin) that regulate blood sugar.
The pancreas usually causes pain around the center and left side of the upper abdomen.
There are two main types of pancreatitis:
- Acute: symptoms develop quickly and can last for a few days. Sometimes the pain is very severe and immediate medical help might be required. The most common triggers of acute pancreatitis are gallstones and alcohol consumption.
- Chronic: the number one cause of chronic pancreatitis is long-term alcohol consumption. Unlike acute pancreatitis, stomach pain may not go away in this case.
When experiencing upper stomach pain after drinking alcohol, you should always consult with your doctor!
Also called splenomegaly, an enlarged spleen is usually caused by infections, blood disorders, certain blood-related cancers (e.g. leukemia), or liver diseases.
Oftentimes an enlarged spleen can go unnoticed, without causing any symptoms.
Those who have symptoms usually feel full after eating only a small amount of food, as the enlarged spleen pushes against the stomach.
This can cause pain in the left upper part of the abdomen, left rib cage, sometimes the pain might radiate into the left shoulder.
There is no special trigger food for this kind of tummy pain, simply eating too much can be enough to cause symptoms.
Pain in the upper right side of the stomach after eating
The upper right side of the stomach (also called right upper quadrant – RUQ) houses these organs:
- a small part of the pancreas (mostly this is on the left side)
- part of the large and small intestines
Inflammations and stones are the most common causes of eating-related upper right abdominal pain. Sometimes cancer might also be the culprit.
Gallbladder disease and upper right abdominal pain
The inflammation of the gallbladder and gallstones are probably by far the most common causes of right-side stomach pain.
In fact, about 20 million people in the US have gallbladder disease. Albeit, most people with gallstones don’t show symptoms at all:
Most patients with gallstones are asymptomatic, but 10% of patients will develop symptoms within five years, and 20% of patients will develop symptoms within 20 years of diagnosing gallstones.(source)
Since the gallbladder helps in the digestion of fat, gallbladder problems are usually triggered or aggravated after eating greasy foods.
Common symptoms of gallbladder issues:
- sudden and rapid pain mainly in the right part of the upper abdomen, sometimes also around the center, pain just below the ribs
- back pain
- right shoulder pain
Right shoulder pain after eating greasy food is a dead giveaway of gallbladder problems. This is because the inflamed and swollen gallbladder irritates the right phrenic nerve.
The left and right phrenic nerves go from the upper part of the stomach through the chest up to the neck and help in breathing. When the gallbladder irritates the right phrenic nerve, the pain might radiate into the entire right upper body, including the back, shoulders, and neck.
Pain in the center or either side of the upper stomach
Certain medical problems can cause pain around the center of the upper stomach or either or both sides.
Peptic ulcers are open sores on the lining of the stomach (gastric ulcers) or in the upper part of the small intestine (duodenal ulcers).
Upper stomach pain, below the rib cage, is the typical symptom of peptic ulcers. Other common symptoms are:
- heartburn or chest pain
- feeling full fast
- weight loss
Symptoms are usually experienced in a couple of hours after eating.
Ulcers are commonly caused by Heliobacter pyroli infection or long-term use of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, e.g. ibuprofen or aspirin).
Although foods usually don’t cause ulcers, they can trigger symptoms in people with existing stomach ulcers. Spicy foods and stress are the two most common triggers that can aggravate symptoms.
The following symptoms might indicate bleeding ulcer:
- blood in the vomit
- blood in the stool (dark stool)
Untreated ulcers sometimes can burn through the mucosal wall of the stomach (perforate), allowing stomach acids to flow into other parts of the abdomen.
Both bleeding and perforated ulcers are medical emergencies!
Indigestion (dyspepsia or upset stomach) is not a disease, but a set of certain symptoms, which might be caused by various health issues.
The most common symptom of indigestion is upper abdominal pain. This might be mild, but also can be very severe.
Other possible symptoms are:
- pain behind the sternum
- belching, bloating
Common health problems that cause indigestion:
- acid reflux
- inflammation of the gallbladder
- stomach ulcers
- and many more
Common triggers are greasy, spicy foods, or acidic foods, coffee, alcohol, or soda. Smoking and stress can also trigger indigestion.
Indigestion is usually not a serious medical condition and the pain should go away with time. However, if your symptoms are severe, talk to your doctor!
Gastritis and gastroenteritis
Gastritis is the inflammation of the lining of the stomach, while gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach
Gastroenteritis is caused by an infection, gastritis is not always. Smoking, alcohol, stress, NSAIDs can all cause gastritis.
Burning pain in the stomach is a possible symptom of both conditions.
Less common causes of upper stomach pain after eating
The following medical conditions are less likely to trigger eating-related upper abdominal pain:
Irritable bowel disease (IBD)
IBD – like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – is the chronic inflammation of the digestive tract.
IBD can cause pain anywhere in the stomach, sometimes in the upper part of the stomach.
Besides stomach pain, people suffering from IBD often experience diarrhea and gas.
Common IBD trigger foods are greasy and sugary foods, alcohol, coffee, and high fiber foods.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
When there is no diagnosable problem with the stomach, yet it still doesn’t work as expected, we talk about IBS.
IBS is usually not a serious condition, but it can have very unpleasant symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation, and – of course – stomach pain.
There is no known cure for IBS, patients should exercise the right diet to manage symptoms.
Greasy, sugary foods and drinks, and alcohol are the most common causes of liver problems.
Liver problems often cause:
- yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
- dark urine
- upper stomach pain, usually on the right
Kidney infection and kidney stones are more likely to cause pain in the back and along the urinary tract. However, pain can radiate into both the left or right part of the upper abdomen, depending on which kidney is causing the pain.
Kidney problems might be very severe, call your doctor right away when:
- the pain is very intense
- there is blood in the urine
- having high fever
Drinking plenty of water makes kidney stones less likely, while a diet high in protein, sugar, or salt increases the risk.
Several health problems can trigger upper stomach pain after eating. Often simple overeating is the cause and the pain should go away after some time.
Right side upper stomach pain is most often caused by gallbladder disease, left side pain is often pancreatitis. Certain conditions can cause pain in both/either side or around the center of the upper part of the abdomen.
However, a sharp pain is always a good reason to call your doctor. In case there is blood in your vomit or you have a dark stool, you should call emergency medical help right away!
Frequently asked questions
What causes upper stomach pain immediately after drinking alcohol?
Possible causes are acute alcoholic gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) and acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
Such acute abdominal pain might be very sharp. Even though such acute symptoms usually go away, they might come back next time when drinking and the condition might become chronic.
If alcohol causes belly pain, you should really consult with a doctor!
Why do I have upper stomach pain and orange juice?
Chances are the highly acidic orange juice gives you heartburn or you might have ulcers, which the orange juice irritates.
Less common causes are allergic reactions to orange or food poisoning when drinking raw orange juice that is infected.
Can drinking coffee cause upper stomach pain?
Yes. Coffee can trigger acid reflux, some people are allergic to caffeine, and many people drink coffee on an empty stomach.
All of the above might cause an upset stomach and trigger upper tummy pain.