What Is Stomach Distension?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 23 January 2019
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Stomach distension is essentially swelling in the abdomen. Consuming too much food is the most common cause of stomach distension. Other causes of distension can vary from weight gain and fluid retention to digestive and bowel disorders. Treatment for this condition generally involves adjusting one’s diet to relieve swelling. When dietary changes prove insufficient, medication may be prescribed or surgery performed.

Weight gain and pregnancy are situations that expectedly contribute to stomach swelling. Abdominal swelling can be irritating and uncomfortable. An increase in the size of one’s stomach is the primary tell-tale sign of distension. Other symptoms can include cramping, a feeling of being full and abdominal tightness. Depending on the cause of one’s distension, additional signs can include gas and constipation.

If you eat a large meal, your stomach can expand beyond its normal size, leading to cramping that subsides as the food is digested. Likewise, a buildup of gas can also occur contributing to distension. Aside from overeating and physiological changes, there are other causes of stomach swelling that require medical attention.


The malabsorption of dairy products, associated with lactose-intolerance, can cause the stomach to expand when food is left undigested in the stomach. If a person has an irritable bowel or bowel obstruction hindering the elimination of waste, he or she may experience progressive stomach swelling that typically goes away once the obstruction is removed. Stomach distension can be a symptom of other conditions, including premenstrual syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome. Women can experience stomach distension if they have cysts or fibroids within the uterus or ovaries.

Several diagnostic tests may be performed to determine the cause of abdominal swelling not related to overeating. The girth, or circumference, of one's stomach can be measured and monitored to determine the rate at which the distension is occurring. Imaging tests, including an abdominal ultrasound and computerized tomography (CT) scan, are commonly used to pinpoint the reason for the distension. In the case of suspected fibroids or cysts, the same imaging tests may be performed on the pelvic region. A lactose-tolerance test may be performed if intolerance is suspected.

Swelling in the abdomen is generally relieved with dietary changes. Individuals prone to this condition are often advised to avoid carbonated drinks and eating too quickly. If lactose intolerance is a factor, additional changes to the diet can include limiting, substituting or eliminating dairy products depending on the severity of symptoms. Sometimes, an increase in one’s fiber intake may be recommended if constipation is contributing to distension. When a more serious condition is linked to one’s stomach swelling, additional treatment may be necessary.

Individuals with irritable bowel syndrome may be prescribed medication designed to alleviate muscle spasms and constipation when dietary changes fail to control distension. If infection is present, antibiotics are given. In the case of intestinal blockage, catheter placement or surgery may be required to reduce distension and eliminate the obstruction. Treatment for fibroids or cysts causing stomach distension can range from the use of oral contraceptives to surgery depending on the severity of one’s condition.

If the cause of abdominal swelling is left undiagnosed, and symptoms progress, serious complications can result. Those with an intestinal blockage risk jaundice, intestinal tearing and infection. Women with fibroids or cysts have an increased chance for anemia, infection and excessive bleeding.


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