Pain Under Left Ribs: 8 Causes & Treatment

Janis

By Janis | Updated November 29, 2023

Experiencing pain under your left ribs can be concerning and uncomfortable. There are various potential causes of this type of pain. Some of these causes are not unduly worrying, but others may indicate severe health issues. 

In this article, we will explore the possible reasons for pain under your left ribs and discuss when you should consult a medical professional.

The organs situated in your upper left abdomen and protected by your ribs include your heart, spleen, pancreas, and parts of your digestive system. The discomfort you feel might stem from problems linked to any of these organs. Identifying the precise reason becomes crucial in administering proper treatment.

Additionally, musculoskeletal issues, muscle strain, and even referred pain from other organs can also contribute to pain in this region. Understanding the underlying cause will enable you to alleviate the discomfort.

When is Left Rib Pain an Emergency?

If you experience sudden, severe pain under your left ribs, it could indicate a medical emergency. 

Seek immediate medical attention if your pain is accompanied by shortness of breath, chest pain radiating to the arm, or severe upper abdominal pain.

In these cases, prompt diagnosis and treatment are crucial.

Causes of Left Rib Pain

Your left ribs protect essential organs like your heart and stomach, which could be affected by pain. The following are non-emergency conditions that require medical attention, but generally not on an emergency basis.

Costochondritis

Costochondritis is a condition marked by inflammation of the cartilage in your rib cage. This inflammation typically occurs where the cartilage connects your ribs to your breastbone (sternum). 

The pain, often sharp or aching, can start suddenly or develop slowly and spread across your chest.

The most common cause of costochondritis is physical strain, such as from coughing or weightlifting. Infections, injuries, and other health conditions can also contribute to this inflammation. Costochondritis affects the upper ribs, usually on the left side of your body.

While painful and often mistaken for heart-related pains, this condition is not life-threatening. It’s crucial to seek medical advice for a correct diagnosis, ensuring you receive appropriate treatment.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is a functional disorder that affects your gut’s motility. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel habits.

The pain can be generalized or localized, but only about 6% of IBS patients experience upper left abdominal pain under their rib cage.

This chronic condition can cause discomfort or pain under the left ribs due to gas or bowel contractions. However, flare-ups can be managed.

The following cases are urgent cases and should be addressed promptly but are not immediately life-threatening.

Pleurisy

Pleurisy, also known as pleuritis, is an inflammation of the pleura – the lining that protects and cushions your lungs. This condition can cause sharp chest pain, particularly under your left ribs, which worsens when you breathe or cough.

The primary cause of pleurisy is viral or bacterial infections. Autoimmune diseases and certain lung conditions can also contribute to its development. As the tissue surrounding your lungs becomes inflamed, the pain under your left ribs can become more acute.

Gastritis

Gastritis is an inflammation of your stomach lining. This condition can cause pain under your left ribs. The most common symptoms include a gnawing or burning ache in your upper abdomen and nausea. Your pain may get better or worse with eating.

Several factors can contribute to gastritis, such as excessive alcohol consumption, chronic stress, and bacterial infections. It’s important to consult a doctor if you experience persistent or severe epigastric pain.

If left untreated, this condition can escalate and cause severe complications, making it crucial to identify the symptoms early and seek appropriate medical attention.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

IBD encompasses conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These inflammatory diseases affect your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, leading to pain and inflammation. Pain is often a familiar part of life for people with IBD, and it can manifest under the ribs.

Infections can exacerbate the symptoms of IBS and IBD. Bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections can cause gastroenteritis or inflammation of the GI tract, further complicating these conditions.

While typically affecting the intestines, IBD can cause pain under the left ribs during flare-ups.

Kidney Stones or Infection

Kidney stones and infections can cause severe pain under your left ribs. Kidney stones are hard mineral deposits that form in your kidneys, causing pain when they pass through your urinary tract.

Infections like kidney infections, also known as pyelonephritis, typically result from urinary tract infections that spread to your kidneys. This may cause fever, chills, and excruciating pain in your back or flank area under your ribs.

You might also experience other symptoms, such as blood or cloudy urine, pain during urination, and a persistent or frequent urge to urinate.

The following conditions are to be considered as medical emergencies where immediate medical attention is required.

Enlarged or Ruptured Spleen and Splenic Infarct

Your spleen is an organ located just below your left rib cage. It helps your body fight infection and filter old blood cells from your bloodstream. 

An enlarged spleen, also known as splenomegaly, can be caused by various conditions, including infections, liver disease, and some cancers.

Splenic infarction occurs when blood flow to the spleen is blocked, typically caused by a blood clot. It can result in tissue death within the spleen and can be a potential cause of pain under your left ribs. 

This condition presents with sudden, sharp pain in the left upper abdomen, which often worsens during deep breaths. A ruptured spleen is a medical emergency.

Symptoms of a ruptured spleen may include pain in your left upper abdomen, tenderness when you touch the area, and confusion or lightheadedness due to internal bleeding.

The ruptured spleen, being a medical emergency, is time-sensitive and life-threatening due to internal bleeding if not immediately addressed.

Broken or Bruised Ribs

Pain under your left ribs could be due to broken or bruised ribs. This usually happens when there’s a direct impact or trauma to the chest.

Examples include car accidents, falls, or direct contact during sports like football.

Broken and bruised ribs differ in the injury level. A broken or fractured rib involves damage to the bones. Meanwhile, a bruised rib affects the supportive muscles and tissues around your ribcage.

With a broken rib, you may feel a sharp pain that worsens when taking deep breaths or twisting your body. You should see a doctor if your rib area is tender or if you experience trouble breathing.

In comparison, bruised ribs may cause dull pain that can also intensify with deep breaths or movements. Although less severe, bruised ribs still require care and attention to prevent further injury or complications.

Fractured or broken ribs present a risk of lung puncture and other serious complications.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas, an essential organ responsible for producing enzymes and hormones. This condition can be acute or chronic, causing discomfort and potential complications.

The primary symptom of pancreatitis is pain in the upper abdominal area, usually under the left ribs. You may experience this pain as a sudden onset or as a persistent ache that worsens after eating.

In addition to pain, pancreatitis may cause other symptoms such as vomiting, weight loss without trying, and oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea). If you encounter these symptoms, it’s crucial to consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Pericarditis

Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, which is the sac-like membrane surrounding your heart. This condition can cause pain under your left ribs as it often leads to chest discomfort.

The pain, usually sharp and intense, tends to worsen when lying down and improves when sitting up and leaning forward. In addition to chest pain, you may experience symptoms such as heart palpitations and shortness of breath.

A viral infection is the most common cause of pericarditis. However, other factors can contribute, including heart surgery, autoimmune disorders, and certain medications. In some cases, the cause of pericarditis remains unknown.

To diagnose pericarditis, your healthcare provider will perform a physical examination, listen to your heart, and review your medical history. Additional tests such as an electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram, and blood tests may also be conducted.

How is Left Rib Pain Diagnosed?

When experiencing pain under your left ribs, it’s important to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Physical Exam

The doctor will begin with a physical exam. 

They will inspect the area, palpate to feel for any swelling or tenderness and listen to your breathing.

Imaging Tests

Depending on the results, your doctor may recommend imaging studies like X-rays, ultrasounds, or CT scans. 

These tests can reveal issues such as fractures, inflammation, or organ abnormalities.

Blood Tests

Based on the initial examination, your doctor may order blood tests to assess your organ function and check for infection. These tests can help identify underlying conditions.

Overall, an accurate diagnosis is crucial to determine the best treatment for the pain under your left ribs. Be attentive to changes in your symptoms and inform your doctor, as this information will assist in achieving a proper diagnosis.

How Can I Manage Pain in My Left Ribs?

To manage pain under your left ribs, various treatments can be considered. Depending on the cause, combining medications and lifestyle changes may help alleviate your discomfort.

Medications

Medications can play a crucial role. Over-the-counter pain relievers may reduce inflammation and discomfort.

If your pain persists or worsens, consult your doctor for prescription-strength medications or specific advice.

Posture Correction

Evaluate your posture and make corrections to avoid straining your muscles.

It is also important to be mindful of your sleeping position and consider using a supportive pillow.

Exercise

Engage in gentle stretching and strengthening exercises for your core, back, and chest muscles to enhance overall stability.

Physical activities like walking, swimming, or yoga can optimize your overall fitness and help in reducing pain.

Applying Heat or Cold Packs

Applying heat or cold packs to the affected area might provide temporary relief. Try alternating between heat and cold packs for optimal results. Make sure to wrap them in a towel to avoid skin damage.

For more personalized treatments, consult your physician or medical professional to identify the cause of your pain and receive appropriate recommendations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can cause discomfort in the upper left abdomen?

Discomfort in the upper left abdomen can be caused by a variety of reasons. Some possible causes include gastrointestinal issues, such as IBS, IBD, gastritis, or kidney stones, and problems with organs like the spleen, kidney, and pancreas.

Other issues, like costochondritis or muscle strains, can also be sources of pain.

What are common symptoms of pain around the ribs and back on the left side?

Common symptoms associated with left-sided rib and back pain may include sharp or dull pain, discomfort that worsens during deep breaths or movement, and swelling or tenderness around the affected area.

You may also experience other symptoms, like nausea, bloating, or coughing, depending on the cause.

What might cause sudden sharp pain under the left ribs during breathing?

Sudden sharp pain under your left ribs during breathing can be caused by various issues. One common cause is pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining around your lungs.

This pain typically worsens when you breathe in or cough. Other possibilities include muscle strains, rib fractures, or a pneumothorax (collapsed lung).

What organs are located on the left side under the rib cage?

The organs located on the left side under your rib cage include the spleen, left kidney, pancreas, and parts of the colon and stomach.

The lower ribs also provide protection to your lungs and heart.

When should one seek medical attention for left-side pain under the ribs?

Seek medical attention for left-sided pain under your ribs if the pain is severe, persistent, or accompanied by other concerning symptoms like fever, discolored stool, vomiting, or unexplained weight loss.

Medical professionals can determine the cause and appropriate treatment to relieve the pain and any associated conditions.