Understanding New and Severe Abdominal Pain

Welcome to our guide, Understanding New and Severe Abdominal Pain.

New and severe abdominal pain always needs to be closely evaluated by a doctor. It is frequently a sign of serious illness. This guide was not designed to substitute for office-based care.

If you are having new and severe abdominal pain, this pain may be frightening to you because of its mystery -- the abdomen contains many important organs that could be the source of your pain. It may seem like a daunting task for a doctor to diagnose the source of your symptom; in fact, there are more than a hundred medical conditions that commonly result in abdominal pain.

Despite the long list of possible causes for abdominal pain, your doctor will be likely be able to narrow down the possibilities to a short list after initial evaluation. Your experience may be less frightening to you if you understand the way that doctors begin to make sense of your symptom, and the reasons for ordering certain tests.

The purpose of this guide is to help you to understand a common way that doctors think through abdominal pain. This guide may also enable you to provide a more helpful medical history during your doctor's evaluation.

This guide was intended for people with new abdominal pain -- pain that has been present for less than two weeks. If your pain has been present for longer or is recurring from previous episodes, please visit our Guide for Recurring Abdominal Pain.

Click here to begin.

In this guide, we will start by identifying where you feel the pain most strongly. The middle third refers to an up-and-down stripe from the bottom center of your ribs, down through your navel (belly button) and ending above your pelvic bone. The sides of the abdomen refer to the outer one-third on each side of the middle third.

When your body was first forming as an embryo, a part of your development included the "migration" or rearrangement of several of your body organs. The nerves that connected to your organs did not re-wire as the organs rearranged. For this reason, some organs cause pain in a location different from where they are now located.

A specific location of pain in your abdomen is a very valuable clue, but it does not always lay blame on the organs that are located in its vicinity.

Please select the location where your pain is felt most strongly:

In the middle third of my abdomen

On one side or the other

All over my abdomen

To continue reading this article, you must log in.

Subscribe to Harvard Health Online for immediate access to health news and information from Harvard Medical School.

  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »

I'd like to receive access to Harvard Health Online for only $4.99 a month.

Sign Me Up

Already a member? Login ».


As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.

No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Free Healthbeat Signup

Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!

Sign Up
Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Thanks for visiting. Don't miss your FREE gift.

The Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness, is yours absolutely FREE when you sign up to receive Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Sign up to get tips for living a healthy lifestyle, with ways to fight inflammation and improve cognitive health, plus the latest advances in preventative medicine, diet and exercise, pain relief, blood pressure and cholesterol management, and more.

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Get helpful tips and guidance for everything from fighting inflammation to finding the best diets for weight loss...from exercises to build a stronger core to advice on treating cataracts. PLUS, the latest news on medical advances and breakthroughs from Harvard Medical School experts.

BONUS! Sign up now and
get a FREE copy of the
Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Stay on top of latest health news from Harvard Medical School.

Plus, get a FREE copy of the Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness.