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Why do I have pain under my left rib cage?

30 July 2020 in Health

Written by Georgina Newman
Edited by Mike Martin
Reviewed by the Your.MD Medical team

Pain under your left rib shouldn’t be ignored, as this area contains several organs, including your stomach, left kidney, spleen and parts of your liver, pancreas and bowel.

This area is known as the left upper quadrant (LUQ), and any pain you feel here could be a sign that something is affecting 1 or more of those organs.

Pain here could also be caused by problems with your gut.

It’s important to know what may be causing your pain, and whether you need to see a doctor or get emergency medical help.

Pain under left rib: What could it be?

Costochondritis

This occurs when the strong tissue (cartilage) attaching your ribs to your breastbone (costochondral joint) becomes inflamed. It can cause a sharp, stabbing pain in your chest and left ribs.

It can be caused by injury or straining that area, or can result from an infection, for example an infection of your airways (respiratory).

If your pain is due to costochondritis, you may find it gets worse when your body moves suddenly, such as when you cough or sneeze, or when you’re doing exercise. It may also get worse when you lie down.

If you think pain under your left rib may be caused by this condition, try not to do any sports or anything that places more strain on your breastbone.

If you only have mild chest pain and no other symptoms, you should be able to care for yourself at home by resting and avoiding any activities that make the pain worse.

But always see a doctor if you have chest pain that doesn’t go away, feel breathless or if your pain is severe and comes on suddenly.

Problems with your gut

Common problems that can affect the stomach and gut can cause pain in your upper tummy (abdomen), and under your left rib.

Stomach ulcer

These are sores that form in your stomach lining when it’s damaged. This can happen when you’ve been taking certain anti-inflammatory medications for a long period of time, or you have an infection caused by Helicobacter pylori (h. pylori) bacteria.

If you have a stomach ulcer, you may experience a sharp pain in the middle of your tummy just below your rib cage that gets worse — this is the most common symptom. But you may also feel sick or have indigestion.

If your stomach ulcer is caused by Helicobacter bacteria, it may be treated with antibiotics. If it’s found to be caused by taking anti-inflammatories, then a doctor will prescribe you other medication.

Usually stomach ulcers clear once the cause is found and you have the right treatment, but complications can occur, such as internal bleeding. So it’s important that you see a doctor immediately if:

  • the pain under your ribs comes on suddenly and gets increasingly worse
  • your poo is dark in colour
  • there’s blood in your vomit

Indigestion

Indigestion is common, affecting 4 in 10 people each year in the UK. It’s not a condition, but a series of symptoms which includes pain in the upper part of your tummy, just below your ribs.

It’s thought to occur when stomach acid breaks down the lining of your digestive system, causing a burning pain.

If you have indigestion, any pain you feel in this area may come on after eating. You should look out for other common indigestion symptoms too, such as heartburn, bloating, farting or feeling sick.

If you think the pain on your left side under your rib cage could be due to indigestion, then you can treat it at home. For example, you can try:

  • eating smaller meals and eating slowly
  • cutting out smoking
  • avoiding any particular triggers you might have, such as spicy foods

However, if you keep getting indigestion — or a pain in this area that you think may be indigestion — you should see a doctor to find out if there may be an underlying cause.

You should also see a doctor if:

  • you’ve noticed blood in your vomit or poo
  • you have iron deficiency anaemia
  • you’re aged 55 or over
  • you can’t stop being sick
  • you’re finding it hard to swallow
  • you’ve lost weight

Gastroenteritis

This is swelling in your tummy lining and it’s usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. It could be the cause of pain under your left rib as it can give you pain anywhere around your tummy.

If you have gastroenteritis you may also feel sick or be sick, have a temperature (fever) or have diarrhoea.

If you think you have this condition, there’s no specific treatment for it except to stay at home, rest, stay hydrated and take painkillers if necessary. Speak to a pharmacist or doctor for further guidance on how to safely get and use these medicines.

If your symptoms don’t improve within a week, you should see a doctor.

But if your symptoms are severe you should see a doctor immediately. Severe symptoms include:

  • being sick a lot
  • having a high temperature over 38C
  • having blood in your poo
  • having an underlying health condition

It’s important to note that gastroenteritis is infectious, so if you think this may be causing your pain, make sure to wash your hands regularly while you have symptoms and for up to 48 hours after your symptoms have gone.

Problems with your spleen

Your spleen is a non-vital organ that sits next to your stomach in the LUQ, just below your left ribs. Any pain you feel under your left rib cage could be caused by a damaged or enlarged spleen.

You may be able to identify if your pain is caused by damage to your spleen. For example, have you injured the area? Have you been involved in a sports or road accident? Have you recently broken or injured a rib on that side?

If you think your spleen could be damaged due to injury, you may have pain around the left ribs or just below, and you may feel faint or have a faster heart rate.

If you experience these symptoms, you should go to your nearest emergency department immediately.

If you’ve injured your spleen or have a condition like rheumatoid arthritis, your spleen could also swell or become inflamed, causing it to brush against your stomach. This can make you feel full more easily (even if you haven’t eaten anything) and can cause pain around your left ribs and to the left of your back.

If you suspect anything is wrong with your spleen, see a doctor. They will be able to diagnose the problem and help you treat the underlying cause.

Pancreatitis

The pancreas isn’t an organ but a gland. It sits behind your stomach, and part of it is in the LUQ.

This gland can become inflamed, usually as a result of heavy drinking. This inflammation can lead to acute pancreatitis (a short-term condition where the pancreas recovers) or chronic pancreatitis (when your pancreas is inflamed for a long time).

If your pain has come on suddenly and you’re not sure what’s caused it, it could be due to pancreatitis. Pain in the upper part of your tummy or below your left ribs is a common symptom — sometimes sharp or severe pain.

Other symptoms may include feeling sick, vomiting or a reduced appetite.

If you have this condition, you’ll need medical help to treat it quickly as there can be complications.

Check to see if your poo is pale or smelly or if you’ve lost weight recently. If this is the case, you should see a doctor.

Kidney stones

It’s less likely that pain under your left ribs is caused by a problem with your left kidney, but any pain you feel in your left side or back can spread.

Kidney stones affecting your left kidney can cause pain. These are hard stones that form inside the kidneys, and can be caused by not drinking enough fluids.

Kidney stones may not cause any symptoms if they’re small, but pain can occur if a stone gets stuck in the tubes or openings within your kidney or becomes infected.

If you’re not sure what’s causing your pain but think it may be coming from your left kidney, see a doctor.

Key points:

  • don't ignore pain under your left rib as this area is home to several organs
  • common problems that affect the stomach and gut can cause pain in your upper tummy, such as indigestion, gastroenteritis or a stomach ulcer
  • pain in this area may also be caused by problems with your spleen pr pancreas
  • if your pain persists, you should see a doctor
Article Sources

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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