According to Scientific American, the gut, or stomach, earns its reputation as the body’s “second brain” honestly.(1)
The reason for this is simple: the human brain and the human stomach are always in contact with each other. Thanks to a complicated network of nerve cells (neurons), the brain and the gut are continually communicating via the brain-gut axis.
So when your stomach feels tight, this could mean a surprising number of different things.
Unfortunately, in “stomach language,” tightness from various causes may each present with the same initial message from the gut – “I feel tight.”
In this article, learn what you need to know to decode your gut messages and figure out what is causing your stomach tightness.
What Is Stomach Tightness?
The term “stomach tightness” is actually a descriptive one. For medical diagnosis purposes, a feeling of “tightness in the stomach” can be regarded as a symptom rather than the underlying issue on its own.
As reported by the Daily Mail, given new information highlighting the independent intelligence that exists in the stomach, the symptom of stomach tightness is likely a message from gut to brain that all is not well.(2)
Examples given include these:
» A bacteria could have invaded the gut, throwing off the delicate balance of enzymes, probiotics and healthy bacteria.
» Stress could be adversely impacting digestive function.
» Modern medications such as antibiotics or steroids may be interfering with gut health.
» The gut could be overworked – literally – by a nonstop schedule of grazing or by improper food choices (sugar, caffeine, alcohol, et al).
There could also be a physiological underlying cause for why the stomach suddenly feels tight (more about this here in the Causes and Diagnosis sections)
A number of different issues and health conditions may be at the root of a feeling of abdominal tightness.
Here, the location of the stomach tightness can matter as well as any other accompanying symptoms that are often or always present during episodes of stomach tightness.
Upper stomach tightness.
» Swallowed air. Sometimes you may have just swallowed too much air along with a meal or a beverage. Belching or burping will often ensue to help your body expel this extra air.
» GERD. For example, perhaps you feel stomach tightness in your upper abdominal area. In some cases, this could be a sign of GERD (gastro-intestinal reflux). With GERD, minute portions of the stomach acid escape and travel back up the stomach and into the esophagus, causing heartburn and tightness.
» Peptic ulcer. Upper abdominal tightness could also indicate an ulcer. As Patient Info describes, a pain in the upper stomach region just below the breastbone can be an early warning sign of a peptic ulcer, which is the most common kind of ulcer diagnosed today.(3)
» Hiatal hernia. Another possible cause of upper tightness in the stomach is a hiatal hernia. Cleveland Clinic describes how a hiatal hernia forms when a portion of the upper stomach pushes through the diaphragm (at the place where the stomach and esophagus meet and join) and ends up inside the upper chest cavity.(4)
» Gastritis. Gastritis is an inflammation of the stomach lining. Doctors Health Press cites a feeling of upper stomach area fullness as one of the symptoms.(5)
» Ascites. This may cause tightness in the upper and/or lower stomach. Ascites refers to a fluid buildup between the abdominal wall and the internal organs. It arises as a result of liver disease and is very serious, according to MedlinePlus.(6)
Lower and middle stomach tightness.
» Having overeaten. While never comfortable, sometimes simply eating too much can cause mild to severe abdominal tightness. When the food is greasy, spicy or accompanied by alcohol or large amounts of liquid, the tightness often feels worse.
» Injury. If you have been in a vehicle accident, play contact sports or simply had an “oops” moment, you may have sustained an injury to your abdominal area, which can cause tightness as the damaged tissues attempt to repair themselves.
» PMS or pregnancy. As most women will attest, there can be times when menstrual cramping can feel a lot like stomach tightness. Similarly, in certain cases, a woman may become pregnant and have an initial feeling of stomach tightness.
» Bladder infection (UTI). The discomfort of a bladder infection is usually associated with pain/burning upon urination. But often it starts as a feeling of fullness, bloating or tightness in the lower abdominal area.
» Constipation. Constipation is one of the most common digestive issues, but it can sneak up on you. Feelings of tightness, fullness or even spasming in the lower abdomen can all be signs of constipation.
» Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS can make its presence known anywhere in the abdomen – lower, upper, middle, you name it. The tightness here is often paired with stomach pain.
» Mass. A mass can also present anywhere in the abdomen, and may first manifest as a tight stomach feeling – almost like a lack of space in the abdomen.
» Peritonitis. Mayo Clinic describes peritonitis as what occurs when the inner thin lining of the abdomen becomes inflamed.(7) Feelings of tightness, fullness, bloating and tenderness are all common symptoms.
» Anxiety. Finally, as the Calm Clinic describes, there is such a thing as “anxious stomach.”(8) This is often linked to emotional or mental stress. Panic attacks can also cause stomach tightness.
Given the vast range of potential causes for tightness in abdomen anywhere in the stomach/abdominal area, the symptoms can be quite varied as well.
Here is a list of the most commonly reported patient symptoms that can accompany feelings of stomach tightness:
» Mild to severe pain.
» Fever or chills.
» Feelings of over-fullness.
» Chest tightness.
» Inability to breathe fully.
Diagnosing Tightness in Stomach
Because of the range of symptoms and potential diagnoses, it is very helpful to keep a symptoms log so you can notice accompanying symptoms to your stomach tightness.
This can also be critical in minimizing unnecessary diagnostic testing, since often the collection of symptoms can more readily point the physician in the direction of the most likely causes.
While it is always a good idea to seek medical help for symptoms of a tight stomach feeling, while you wait for your appointment, do your best to write down all symptoms you experience along with your stomach tightness. Bring your symptoms log to your appointment.
In most cases, Mayo Clinic explains that diagnosing stomach tightness will proceed as follows:(9)
» Personal/family medical history. Your physician will want to know about any recent travels or unusual foods eaten, as well as your personal/family medical history. This may help pinpoint genetic or situational issues that could be causing stomach tightness.
» Physical exam. While it may be uncomfortable, your physician will want to examine and palpate your abdominal area, listen to your chest and your breathing and do a lymph glands check to identify additional areas of tenderness or tightness.
» Blood tests. A CBC (complete blood count) is often ordered right away to take a look at overall blood composition and chemistry.
» Breath and stool tests. These tests can check for the presence of fungi or bacteria.
» Endoscopy. This minimally invasive. test puts a small camera into your abdominal cavity to check for abnormalities.
» Imaging tests. CT scan, MRI, X-ray or ultrasound may be used to look for abnormalities as well.
Additional tests may also be ordered as your physician narrows down the diagnostic options.
Treating stomach tightness will correlate with the diagnosis you receive.
For example, an underlying fungal or bacterial infection may require a course of antibiotics.
GERD, gastritis and peritonitis all typically respond well to medicine.
If you have an ulcer, you may need anti-acid medications to help your stomach heal.
For mild hernias, often no treatment is required. But surgery is the recommended choice for significant hernias.
IBS, constipation and diarrhea, as well as anxiety or panic attacks, may respond well to dietary changes, medication and stress management.
If you have been struggling with feelings of tightness in the abdomen, it is important to seek medical care right away.
Take these steps to find fast relief from your stomach tightness:
» Keep a symptoms log.
» Make an appointment with your family doctor.
» Bring your symptoms log and medical history notes and have an exam.
» Complete the recommended medical tests to get a diagnosis.
» Follow your doctor’s treatment plan to find relief.