Abdominal pain may occur as a dull ache, cramping, or sharp pain. Aches and cramping are often associated with some chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy causes these abdominal pains by changing the rate of intestinal activity. Furthermore, abdominal pain has many possible causes, some of which can be life threatening. Notify your doctor if you have any abdominal pains or other side effects that you are concerned about.
How do chemotherapy drugs cause abdominal pain?
Chemotherapy drugs can cause either an increase or decrease in the activity of the intestines. Specifically, the normal wavelike action of the intestines that move stool through the bowel may be faster or slower than usual. An increase in intestinal activity may cause stool to travel faster and be less formed, resulting in cramping and/or diarrhea. This is frequently caused by the chemotherapy treatments killing the cells that line your intestinal tract. A decrease in intestinal activity may cause stool to travel slower, becoming hard and dry and more difficult to pass, a condition generally recognized as constipation. This is commonly caused as a result of the chemotherapy drugs inhibiting the nerves that cause peristalsis (the normal muscular contractions of the intestinal tract).
Chemotherapy may also alter the bacterial flora that is present in the intestines. Under normal conditions, the intestines are populated with a variety of “good” bacteria that help with digestion. Chemotherapy may kill these bacteria, resulting in an imbalance in the intestines that allows “bad” bacteria to flourish. The result is poor digestion, increased flatulence (gas), cramping, and diarrhea.
How is abdominal pain managed?
Management of abdominal pain depends on its cause. Since there are many possible causes, some of which can be life threatening, you should notify your doctor immediately if you have abdominal pain.
For mild upper abdominal pain, especially “heartburn” related to digestive problems, over-the-counter medications, including Maalox, Mylanta, Pepto-Bismol, and Tums, may provide some relief. Some of these medications can worsen your symptoms, however, so call your doctor if they are not helping. Keep in mind, too, these medications only treat the symptoms of abdominal pain, not the cause. For lasting relief, you should try to alter your diet in a way that helps either slow or speed the intestinal activity. See the sections on diarrhea and constipation for more information.
This content was last reviewed
August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.