Back pain and swollen stomach: 6 possible causes (and what to do?)

back pain and swollen stomach

Article reviewed and approved by Dr. Ibtissama Boukas, physician specializing in family medicine

Backache and swollen belly can occur at the same time, and cause unpleasant symptoms (sometimes even worrying!). This association is more common than one might imagine, and the related causes are usually benign.

In this article, we discuss 6 possible causes explaining the occurrence of back pain and bloating. We then offer medical and natural solutions aimed at relieving symptoms. Finally, we expose the situations where it is essential to consult to eliminate a more serious attack.

Painful swollen belly and back pain: 6 possible causes

There are several causes that can lead to back pain associated with bloating. Other symptoms encountered may be:

  • stomach ache
  • reflux
  • gas
  • Constipation
  • diarrhea
  • etc.

Now, what explains the relationship between lower back pain and a bloated stomach? Possible causes include:

1. A back injury or spinal pathology as a source of stomach aches

A wide range of medical conditions can cause back pain. We are thinking in particular of herniated discs, degenerative disc diseases, scoliosis, etc.

Sometimes symptoms can radiate to other parts of the body and cause changes elsewhere. We think in particular of the sciatica which causes radiating pain in the leg.

On the other hand, few people know that the nerves connected to certain vertebrae emerge from the spine and then head towards the stomach region.

Irritation or compression of these nerves in the spine (for example, following a herniated disc) can therefore potentially affect the abdominal organs, including the intestine. This can lead to pain and intestinal disorders.

Additionally, lower back pain can change a person's posture, increasing intra-abdominal pressure. This increase in pressure can affect gastrointestinal functioning, and also cause abdominal pain or intestinal disorders.

So, in this situation, digestive disorders are the CONSEQUENCE of a spinal problem.

2. Gastrointestinal disorders

There are multiple gastrointestinal disorders. We are thinking in particular of:

  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • Crohn's disease
  • ulcerative colitis
  • gluten intolerance
  • food poisoning
  • allergies
  • etc.

These intestinal disorders, in addition to the feeling of a bloated stomach, can cause back pain through various mechanisms.

Through the inflammation these conditions induce, this can stimulate nerves or create symptoms in nearby areas, including the back, leading to referred pain in this area.

Additionally, inflammation in the abdomen can also increase intra-abdominal pressure, which, in turn, can affect posture and place muscular tension on the back structures.

Finally, gastrointestinal disorders are often accompanied by constipation or vomiting. In this context, it is not uncommon for some people to develop muscle spasms in the back region due to repeated strain.

So, in this situation, back pain would be the CONSEQUENCE of digestive disorders.

3. Stress, source of all evils

In addition to the affected mood, it is important to understand that stress is regularly accompanied by physiological changes. This includes physical pain, AND stomach upset (including a feeling of bloated stomach).

How, exactly? On the one hand, stress increases muscle tension, and it is not uncommon to develop (or even worsen) lower back pain after a stressful event. Pain can also refer to the middle back, between the shoulder blades or top of the back.

Additionally, stress can affect the rate and strength of muscle contractions in the gastrointestinal tract, either by slowing them down (which can lead to constipation) or by speeding them up (which can result in diarrhea).

Likewise, stress can modify the composition and function of the intestinal microbiota, all the microorganisms living in the digestive tract. These changes can affect digestion, nutrient absorption, and the immune system, worsening digestive disorders.

Finally, in response to stress, some people may adopt behaviors that are detrimental to overall health. This includes inactivity, smoking, drinking alcohol, eating high-fat and sugary foods, etc. These behaviors can exacerbate existing digestive disorders and back pain.

Thus, stress can worsen the already present symptoms of back pain AND digestive problems.

Other conditions causing back pain AND digestive disorders

4. Hormonal changes

Any hormonal change can affect the human body. The easiest example to conceptualize is rules. Indeed, many women complain of back pain accompanied by bloating just before – or even during – their period. Women sometimes also complain of pain in the lower abdomen (or even to the ovaries).

These symptoms are usually nothing to worry about, especially if they follow a predictable pattern and don't cause serious problems.

Besides menstruation, a person on hormone therapy (such as hormone replacement therapy) may also experience a combination of back pain and stomach bloating. Of course, these changes should be discussed with your attending physician.

5. Pregnancy

During pregnancy (especially in the third trimester), it is not uncommon for the bloated belly to be accompanied by constipation, gas, or lower back pain. This is due in particular to the fact that the uterus begins to compress the organs.

In addition, the additional weight and the displacement of the center of gravity modify the curvatures of the spine, and can cause back pain.

To know everything about low back pain during pregnancy, see the following article. 

Although it is always best to tell your doctor about any changes, you should know that these changes are harmless to the baby, and will usually disappear after delivery.

6. Autoimmune diseases

An autoimmune disease occurs when the body's natural defense system fails to differentiate between its own cells and foreign cells, causing the body to mistakenly attack "normal" cells. There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases that cause various symptoms depending on their etiology.

Some of the most recognized autoimmune diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis
  • Crohn's disease
  • celiac disease
  • Hashimoto's disease
  • Etc

In terms of symptoms, back pain and stomach bloating are part of the clinical picture of many of these autoimmune diseases. Added to this are fatigue, joint pain, dermatological disorders (skin problems), digestive problems, recurring fever, etc.

To know everything about back pain of inflammatory origin, see the following article.

When to consult? (serious causes of back pain and swollen stomach)

Fortunately, back pain that is accompanied by bloating is usually mild. Moreover, it is possible that the two symptoms are not related, as for example in a person suffering from chronic low back pain caught gas causing stomach pain.

On the other hand, it happens that these symptoms come from a serious attack requiring an urgent medical intervention. Examples include the following medical conditions:

  • affection of the spinal cord
  • cancer (pancreas, ovaries, etc.)
  • liver disorders
  • abdominal aortic aneurysms
  • serious gastrointestinal disorders (such as peritonitis or bowel obstruction)

Considering the potential risk, it is best to consult your doctor if the symptoms do not subside within a few days, or if you observe one of the following signs:

  • unbearable, fast-onset pain
  • rectal bleeding
  • associated medical condition
  • recent history of spinal injury
  • fever
  • vomiting

Treatment: What to do?

To be able to effectively treat back pain associated or not with a feeling of bloated belly, it is necessary to identify the exact source of the problem. This step is essential to observe conclusive results, and a qualified healthcare professional can guide you through this process.

For example, a doctor may perform a physical examination to assess the mobility of your vertebrae, the integrity of your nervous system, your muscle strength, etc. He will first ask you questions about your symptoms, your medical history, your eating habits, your general state of stress, etc.

If necessary, he will prescribe a medical imaging examination to assess the integrity of the structures potentially responsible for your symptoms. This can be an x-ray, CT scan, MRI, etc. A blood test can also help clarify the diagnosis.

In terms of treatment, it will depend on the results of the tests mentioned above. The care will be individualized, and monitored regularly to ensure optimal progress. Strategies regularly recommended by healthcare professionals include:

  • take appropriate medication (painkiller, anti-gas and flatulence medication, etc.)
  • apply a heating pillow on the back or stomach
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  • temporarily use a lumbar belt designed to support the lower back region, and which exerts a slight compressive force on the stomach
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  • drink enough water
  • getting tested to determine if you have certain food allergies
  • adopt a anti-inflammatory diet
  • try a gluten-free diet
  • rest and manage stress through meditation techniques (such as meditation mindfulness)
  • do deep breathing exercisesdiaphragmatic breathing)
  • consider alternative treatments such as acupressure mat
  • consult an osteopath: This one will be able to highlight the dysfunctions at the vertebral level and the digestive system to treat them via manual techniques. Although there is not much scientific evidence behind these manipulations, many patients experience significant and lasting relief.
  • losing weight

What about natural remedies?

Although they are not supported by solid scientific evidence, several natural products and grandmother's remedies are used to treat lower back pain and stomach aches, especially for their anti-inflammatory power.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of plants and essential oils that are effective in controlling pain and inflammation:

  • Turmeric : Thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers very powerful, turmeric is one of the most used plants in a culinary and therapeutic context. The composition of turmeric is essentially made of essential oils, vitamins (B1, B2, B6, C, E, K) and trace elements. But it is to its composition rich in curcumin and curcuminoids that we owe them and calm skin of this spice.
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  • Ginger : In addition to the special flavor it brings to the kitchen and its aphrodisiac properties, ginger is a root well known for its anti-inflammatory powers. THE gingerol gives it its anti-inflammatory action. It is an active component acting on the inflammatory pain related to chronic joint inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, rheumatic diseases, etc. It has been proven that this active element is also effective in acting on the inflammation linked to arthritis and sciatica. Ginger also has other benefits thanks to its high potassium content and its richness in trace elements (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium) and vitamins (provitamin and vitamin B9).
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  • Omega-3s : Omega-3 are polyunsaturated fatty acids that play a very important role in the functioning of our body. They are provided by food in three natural forms: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Beyond their action on the brain and the cardiovascular system, omega-3s prove very effective against inflammation. Indeed, they have the ability to act on the inflammatory mechanisms in osteoarthritis by slowing down cartilage destruction, thus they reduce the intensity of osteoarthritis pain. Since sciatica is most often linked to inflammation secondary to a herniated disc, it can also respond to omega-3s if you consume them regularly. 

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  • Lemon eucalyptus: Eucalyptus is a plant most often used in the form of herbal tea or essential oil. She would have anti-inflammatory effects which give it the ability to act on the bone and joint pain in general and the pain of sciatica in particular.
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  • wintergreen : Wintergreen is a shrub from which a very interesting essential oil is extracted. It is one of the most used essential oils in aromatherapy. This oil extracted from the shrub bearing the same name, is used in massage to relieve sciatica and act like a analgesic. Indeed, it provides a heating effect thanks to its ability toactivate blood circulation locally.
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