What causes upper left abdominal pain under the ribs?
The rib cage attaches to the breastbone and spine, and the ribs protect many vital organs. On the left side of the body, these organs include the:
- left lung
- left kidney
Below, we discuss 10 possible causes of upper left abdominal pain under the ribs and explain when a person with this symptom should see a doctor.
1. Irritable bowel syndrome
Possible causes of upper left abdominal pain include IBS, IBD, and costochondritis.
Frequent pain in the abdomen can be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a collection of symptoms affecting the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Symptoms can include:
- changes in bowel movements
- stomach cramps
- white mucus in stools
Many different factors can cause IBS. It often occurs due to:
- stressful life events
- bacterial infection or changes in the gut
- food sensitivities or intolerances
People with IBS may benefit from making lifestyle changes, such as:
- increasing fiber intake
- taking probiotics
- doing more exercise
- reducing stress, for example, by practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques
- ensuring good sleep hygiene
- getting enough rest
2. Inflammatory bowel disease
Symptoms of IBD include:
- pain in the abdomen
- frequent diarrhea
- blood in stools
- unintentional weight loss
A poorly functioning immune system can cause IBD, which certain medications can help treat.
Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone. A person may feel pain in the chest that worsens during a deep breath or while taking part in physical activity.
Taking pain relievers and applying warmth to the area can help treat costochondritis.
Anyone who experiences shortness of breath, a fever, or nausea alongside chest pain should seek medical help right away.
4. Bruised or broken ribs
If an injury results in one or more bruised or broken ribs, a person may experience pain around the affected ribs as well as chest pain when breathing in. They may also have heard a crack at the time of the injury.
Damaged ribs usually heal on their own within 3–6 weeks. People can ease pain and help the healing process by:
- taking pain relievers
- applying a cold compress to the ribs to reduce swelling
- holding a pillow against the chest when coughing
- taking slow, deep breaths to clear the lungs of any mucus
Broken ribs can sometimes puncture surrounding organs. Therefore, someone with a broken rib should seek immediate medical attention if they:
- have worsening chest pain
- experience shortness of breath
- have shoulder pain
- are coughing up blood
A doctor may recommend pain relievers to a person with pancreatitis.
- tenderness or pain in the abdomen, which may spread to the back
- increased heart rate
- a feeling of swelling in the abdomen
People with severe pancreatitis may have additional symptoms, such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
If a person thinks that they may have pancreatitis, they should see a doctor right away.
The severity of the condition will determine the treatment, which may include:
- pain relievers
- intravenous fluid and food
- surgery, in severe cases
Pericarditis causes sharp chest pain, which may also affect the upper left abdominal area. Other symptoms can include:
- heart palpitations, which are sensations of the heart fluttering, skipping a beat, or pumping too hard or too fast
The pericardium consists of two layers of tissue that protect the heart and help it function. Pericarditis is inflammation of this tissue, and it often results from a viral infection.
Antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication, and plenty of rest can help treat pericarditis.
Chest pain from pericarditis can feel similar to a heart attack. People with chest pain should seek immediate medical treatment.
Gastritis is the medical name for inflammation of the stomach lining, which can result from:
- bacterial infection
- drug or alcohol overuse
- radiation exposure
- the body's stress response to surgery or severe illness or injury
This inflammation can cause pain or discomfort in the upper left abdomen, and people may also experience nausea and vomiting.
Treatment for gastritis involves taking medications that help reduce the amount of acid in the stomach, allowing the lining to heal.
8. Kidney infection
An infection of the left kidney can cause pain in the upper left abdomen. Other symptoms of a kidney infection can include:
- frequent urination
- pain when urinating
- pain in the back and groin
Kidney infections can be dangerous, so a person with the above symptoms should see a doctor right away.
To treat the infection, a doctor usually prescribes antibiotics, which the individual receives either orally or through an intravenous drip.
Sometimes, a severe infection causes large abscesses to form on the kidney, and surgery to drain them might be necessary.
9. Kidney stones
- pain in the abdomen and back
- blood in the urine
- pain when urinating
Taking pain relievers and drinking plenty of water can minimize symptoms and help a kidney stone pass through the body. People with larger kidney stones may need shock wave treatment to break up the stones or surgery to remove them.
10. Enlarged spleen
Pain in the upper left abdomen can indicate a problem with the spleen. The spleen can become enlarged due to infections or certain conditions, such as liver disease or rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of an enlarged spleen include:
- feeling full soon after eating small amounts
- bleeding easily
- frequent and recurrent infections
Doctors aim to treat the underlying cause of the enlargement. In the case of an infection, the person needs to complete a course of antibiotics.
Occasionally, an injury to the left side of the body can cause the spleen to rupture, leading to pain in the upper left abdomen, dizziness, and an increased heart rate.
A ruptured spleen is a medical emergency because it can cause extensive internal bleeding. If a person has the signs and symptoms of an enlarged or ruptured spleen following an injury to the area, they should receive immediate medical attention.
When to see a doctor
A person should speak to a doctor if they experience weakness or black stools at the same time as abdominal pain.
Speak to a doctor about pain or discomfort in the upper left abdomen that is severe or occurs regularly.
See the doctor right away if any of the following symptoms accompany the abdomen pain:
- black, tar-like stools
- blood in the stools, urine, or vomit
A person who experiences chest pain and shortness of breath, dizziness, or a fever should seek immediate medical care. Call 911 or the local emergency number.
Pain or tenderness in the left side of the upper abdomen under the ribs can result from a broken rib or any of a variety of conditions that affect the nearby organs. People may also experience pain in their chest or back.
If upper left abdominal pain is regular or severe, see a doctor to determine the cause. The doctor will present treatment options depending on the underlying condition.