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What Does Colic Mean for Adults?

Colic is a well-known condition in young babies. Although otherwise healthy, they can sometimes cry unconsolably for no apparent reason, especially in the first months of life. Colic in babies is often associated with some sort of abdominal pain. The term colic is also used to describe sudden, recurring, unspecified abdominal pain in adults.

Visual guide to sudden, recurring abdominal pain, providing insights and considerations for managing this condition.

Even with our current level of medical understanding, abdominal pain can be tricky to identify and to treat. It is common in people of all ages and can have many different underlying causes. Also, many common NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) painkillers can do damage to the gastrointestinal tract.

If you experience sudden and persistent bursts of abdominal pain, sometimes lasting up to several hours, but you can’t quite tell where it’s coming from and your usual stomach treatments aren’t helping, it may be a form of adult colic.


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Pain is notoriously difficult to describe. The words we use—sharp, throbbing, burning, aching, sore—can mean different things to different people. What’s more, the abdomen contains so many of our vital organs in close proximity, which can make it difficult to identify the culprit.

The term “colic” is a non-specific term that describes recurring pain with no clearly identifiable cause. The phrase functional abdominal pain is also sometimes used.

Colic in babies

When babies are fussy and cry in distress for hours or even days on end, although all their basic needs are being met, the go-to explanation is often colic.

The precise cause of colic can be challenging to pinpoint, but it is typically attributed to some sort of abdominal discomfort. Clenching the fists, arching the backs, and pulling the legs toward the abdomen are all common expressions of distress in colicky babies, and passing gas is also very common.

Getting used to life outside the womb and consuming breast milk or baby formula for the first time can be very challenging for a baby’s gastrointestinal system. Potential causes include an immature digestive system, food allergies or sensitivities, an imbalance in the intestinal microflora, overfeeding, underfeeding, insufficient burping, and stress in the family.

Colic generally resolves itself by the time the baby is three or four months old, but the condition can be distressing and exhausting for the entire family. Parents were once advised to simply let colicky babies cry, but there are a variety of strategies that can help relieve their discomfort and pain. A healthcare provider can advise. Pain and discomfort should not be dismissed in either infants or adults just because others cannot see the reason behind it. 


Unfortunately, abdominal pain in both babies and adults—especially women—has a greater chance of being dismissed. This bias can lead to serious conditions going undetected.

Colic in adults

In adults, colic can manifest as cramping or spasms of pain in the abdomen, and the location of the pain may shift or seem diffuse. It may be a vague feeling of discomfort in the abdominal region or sharp, intermittent abdominal pains that don’t seem to have a specific origin.

Is having a tummy ache normal?

Occasional gastrointestinal discomfort—an upset stomach—is a common experience for many of us. We all sometimes eat foods that don’t agree with us, especially when travelling or trying out new things. Some of us have food allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities that manifest as a stomach ache.

Lifestyle factors, diet, and stress can all influence the gastrointestinal tract. The most common factors that can cause a tummy ache include:

  • food intolerances
  • overeating
  • indigestion
  • gas
  • stress
  • menstrual cramps
  • sudden lifestyle and dietary changes


In most cases, tummy aches are mild and temporary, and can often be relieved with simple lifestyle adjustments or over-the-counter remedies.

Persistent, severe stomach ache or abdominal pain, however, demands an explanation.

Types of colic in adults

Colic in adults is generally classified as renal colic, biliary colic, or intestinal colic based on the origin of pain.

Visual guide to Renal Colic, illustrating symptoms and considerations for managing pain associated with kidney stones or urinary blockages


Renal colic

Renal colic is characterized by sharp pains in the kidney area—“flank pain” in your lower back—often caused by kidney stones (also called renal calculi, nephrolithiasis, or urolithiasis). These are small, crystalline deposits of minerals and acid salts, ranging in size from a grain of sand to a small pebble, that can cause intense pain, nausea and vomiting, and blood in the urine when they travel through or lodge in the urinary tract, blocking the flow of urine.

Kidney stones can develop due to diet, genetics, or inadequate hydration. Passing them can be very uncomfortable, but treatment options are available to help break them down or remove them. If the pain is extremely acute, a surgical procedure may be necessary.

Preventing kidney stones often involves dietary changes and staying well-hydrated. Drinking enough fluids is the number one protective measure you can take.

Pain near your kidneys may also indicate a urinary tract or kidney infection. If you have a kidney infection or another kidney condition, use only painkillers that have been approved by your doctor. Certain pain medications such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and high-dose aspirin can cause further inflammation in the kidneys.

Biliary colic

Biliary colic is the clinical term used to describe sudden and intense pain caused by a temporary blockage or irritation of the gallbladder or the bile ducts.

Bile is a substance secreted by the liver that helps us digest fats. It is stored in the gallbladder and released when needed. Gallstones form when bile stored in the gallbladder hardens, possibly due to an imbalance in the chemical make-up of the bile—too much cholesterol or bilirubin, or not enough bile salts. Gallstones are common and usually benign, but if a gallstone obstructs the normal flow of bile, it can trigger biliary colic.

While it can occur at any time, a “gallstone attack” tends to happen at night or in the evenings after eating fatty foods that stimulate the gallbladder to contract and release digestive bile.

Biliary colic is characterized by sharp, cramp-like pains in the upper right or upper middle abdomen—the areas surrounding the liver and the gallbladder. The pain may radiate to the back or to right shoulder, is often accompanied by nausea or vomiting, and does not go away after going to the toilet or other measures that usually relieve stomach ache.

Seek medical help if biliary colic lasts for more than 8 hours straight or is accompanied by jaundice or other severe symptoms.

Visual guide to Intestinal Colic, depicting symptoms and considerations for managing abdominal pain associated with gastrointestinal discomfort


Intestinal colic

Intestinal colic refers to sharp, cramp-like abdominal pains that often result from spasms or contractions in the intestines. Such pain is usually caused by gas, indigestion, constipation, or other gastrointestinal issues. The pain is often described as a sudden, intense discomfort that comes and goes, typically in the lower abdomen.

Intestinal colic can be quite uncomfortable and may be accompanied by bloating, changes in bowel habits, and general gastrointestinal distress. While this tends to be a temporary and benign condition, recurring or severe intestinal colic may be indicative of an underlying gastrointestinal disorder, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).


Given that the abdomen houses many vital organs, colic should not be ignored.

Treatment for Colic

To identify the most appropriate treatment, it is important to determine the cause of your distress.

If your colic is accompanied by symptoms such as persistent pain, unexplained weight loss, changes in bowel habits, blood in the stool, or other worrisome signs, it’s important to seek medical advice. Your healthcare provider can assess your symptoms by means of a physical exam, blood tests, ultrasound scans, and other diagnostic tools to rule out appendicitis, diverticulitis, kidney stones, gallstones, or more serious issues.

For mild colic, common home remedies include:

  • drinking lots of water
  • abstaining from spicy foods, coffee, alcohol, and any other products you may have an intolerance for
  • eating mild foods such as rice and bananas until you feel better
  • applying a heating pad or hot water bottle to the abdomen
  • adding ginger to food and drinks to help aid digestion

Over-the-counter medications such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) for indigestion, nausea, diarrhoea, and gas, and activated carbon, simethicone, or diosmectite (Smecta) for gas and bloating, and paracetamol for pain relief can also help. If you suffer from liver or kidney disease, be sure to consult your doctor before using a new medication.

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Lifestyle changes

Managing recurring chronic pain often requires the implementation of enduring lifestyle changes. A healthy diet of whole foods, moderate daily activity, and reduced stress can all help you sort out your stomach problems. Dietary supplements such as probiotics can also help ease gastrointestinal issues.

Make sure to:

  • avoid trigger foods
  • reduce stress
  • stay physically active
  • address potential underlying issues such as kidney stones, gallstones, conditions etc.


Use painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and home remedies to manage the pain when it occurs.

Even though the recurring pain may be benign, there is no reason to simply endure without help. It is possible to manage and treat the symptoms of colic and enhance the quality of your everyday life.

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https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/colic-in-adults
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431091/
https://www.american-hospital.org/en/pathologie/renal-colic-and-kidney-stones
https://www.healthline.com/health/colicky-pain
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gallstones/symptoms/
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colic/
https://www.topdoctors.co.uk/medical-dictionary/colic
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322047
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