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Why do I have pain under my right rib cage?

29 July 2020 in Health

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

The part of your body just below your right rib cage is known as the upper right quadrant (RUQ) — 1 of 4 quadrants that make up your tummy (abdomen).

Pain in this area can be caused by conditions that affect the organs found here, including the liver, right kidney and gallbladder.

This kind of pain isn’t usually anything to worry about, but it’s important to know what may be causing it and when to see a doctor.

Should I get medical help?

If you have pain below the right rib cage and you’re not sure why, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the pain persistent or severe?
  2. Do you feel breathless?
  3. Do you have a temperature (fever) but also feel shivery?
  4. Is your poo lighter in colour and your pee darker than usual?
  5. Is there blood in your poo?
  6. Have you coughed up blood?
  7. Have you lost weight?
  8. Is your skin yellow (jaundice) at all?

If you answered yes to 1 or more of these questions, you should see a doctor immediately as these symptoms could be a sign of a serious medical condition.

If you answered no to these questions, here are some possible causes of the pain under your right rib cage.

Causes of pain under your right rib

Gallbladder problems

A sudden, sharp pain under the right rib cage can be a sign of gallstones. These are small stones of bile or cholesterol that are made in the gallbladder (a small organ located just below the liver).

Gallstones are common in adults but don’t usually cause symptoms.

However, if a stone gets blocked in a tube opening (duct) in the gallbladder, this can result in sharp, stabbing pain in the right side under your rib cage. This is known as gallstones disease, and the pain can last for up to 5 hours.

If you have gallstones disease and it’s left untreated, it can lead to swelling of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), which can cause a fever, ongoing pain and yellowing of the skin.

You should see a doctor if you have pain in this area and you think it may be caused by gallstones, or if you have:

  • yellowing skin
  • a high temperature
  • a faster heartbeat than usual
  • pain that travels up to your shoulder — this could be a sign that your gallbladder is inflamed

Closeup of a thermometer

Kidney problems

Pain under the right rib cage may also be caused by a kidney stone. This is a hard lump made from minerals in your urine that can develop in the right kidney. The medical term for this is nephrolithiasis.

Kidney stones are fairly common, with symptoms affecting around 1 in 11 people. They are slightly more common in men than women.

Like gallstones, kidney stones don’t always cause pain. However, if a kidney stone gets trapped in your urinary tract or causes an infection, this can result in severe pain which may be felt in the RUQ or your groin or lower back.

You may also need to pee more often or experience pain while peeing, and you may have blood in your urine.

Kidney stones will usually pass out of your system in your pee, so even if you experience pain, this pain should stop once the stone has been removed from your body.

However, if the pain is severe, speak to a doctor immediately who may refer you to hospital. You should also speak to a doctor about any pain caused by kidney stones if you’re:

  • aged 60 or over
  • pregnant
  • dehydrated (this can happen more easily if you’re also being sick or have diarrhoea)
  • with only 1 kidney or your kidneys are impaired in some way
  • still in pain after taking painkillers (speak to a pharmacist for guidance on what to take)

A kidney infection (pyelonephritis) can also cause pain in the RUQ, especially if it affects the right kidney. But this is not as common. You may also feel weak, have diarrhoea or have a fever while feeling cold.

Kidney infections are slightly more common in women than men.

Closeup of liver organ with signs of damage

Liver disorders

The liver is a large organ, and takes up a lot of space in the RUQ. Conditions that affect the liver and may cause pain in the area include:

Abscess

This is an area of pus formed in the liver, usually the result of a bacterial infection. They are more common in people with diabetes. If you have liver abscess, you may also experience reduced appetite, a fever and weight loss.

Hepatitis

This occurs when the liver is inflamed, and can be caused by drinking too much alcohol or a viral infection. There are different types of hepatitis, and the condition can also cause a fever, itchy or yellowing skin, reduced appetite and tiredness.

This is caused by heavy drinking. You may also experience reduced appetite, diarrhoea and feel sick.

Scarred liver (cirrhosis)

This prevents the liver from functioning as it should and is caused by long-term heavy drinking or a virus that causes damage to the liver (such as hepatitis C).

Symptoms include a high temperature, yellowing of the skin or eyes, shortness of breath, black poo or blood in your vomit.

If you have symptoms of any of these conditions and are not sure of the cause, you should see a doctor.

Pancreas problems

The pancreas is a gland that sits just below the liver.

Conditions which affect it — acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis — can both cause pain in this area of the RUQ or towards the middle of your tummy.

Acute pancreatitis, where the pancreas is inflamed for a short amount of time, may cause a more severe pain. If you have acute pancreatitis, you may experience symptoms such as feeling or being sick or pain under the rib cage.

If you develop a sudden, severe pain, you should see a doctor quickly.

Chronic pancreatitis usually causes a more dull pain, and this inflammation over a long period of time causes lifelong damage to the pancreas. A key symptom of chronic pancreatitis is recurring, severe pain in the tummy.

You should always see a doctor if you have severe pain or develop yellowing skin.

Man in blue shirt at dinner table with hand on chest in pain

Digestive problems

Pain under your right rib can occasionally be caused by a common condition like indigestion.

With indigestion you may also get chest pain and experience a more dull pain in your tummy following a meal. It can also make you feel bloated, have heartburn or feel sick.

If you think the pain may be caused by indigestion, you should be able to treat yourself by making changes to your diet. However, you should see a doctor if you keep getting indigestion (or think you have indigestion) and you:

  • are aged 55 or older
  • are being sick
  • are anaemic
  • have blood in your poo or vomit
  • have lost weight unintentionally

These symptoms can be a sign of heartburn, while recurring indigestion can lead to complications.

Shingles

Shingles is an infection caused by the same virus as chickenpox. Shingles is common, affecting 1 in every 4 people in their lifetime.

It usually results in pain (this is the most common symptom) and then an itchy rash. The pain can be dull, sharp or more intense, and you may also have a fever or headache. These symptoms can affect many parts of your body, including the area under your ribs.

If you have pain under the right rib and you have a rash you think could be shingles, see a doctor. It’s especially important to see a doctor for shingles if you’re pregnant or you have a weaker immune system.

What to do

Any pain you feel under your right rib cage isn’t usually anything to worry about, but if the pain is severe or persists, you should see a doctor as it could be caused by an underlying condition.

Key points:

  • The part of your body just below your right rib cage is called the upper right quadrant (RUQ)
  • Pain under your right rib cage can be caused by conditions that affect the organs in this area, including the liver and gallbladder
  • Usually pain in this area is nothing to worry about, but you should see a doctor if the pain is severe or persists
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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