Pain in Left Side Under Ribs: Causes and When You Must see a Doctor

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Pain in Left Side Under Ribs

It is natural to worry about pain in the left side under your ribs because of the possibility it is related to your heart. Sharp, stabbing, or squeezing pains under your left rib cage can be due to conditions of your internal organs, ribcage, or cardiovascular system. Pain on the left side under your rib cage that is cardiac related feels like intense pressure on your left chest that spreads to your arm. Even though most of the time left-sided pain under your ribs isn’t to do with your heart, you should never ignore any kind of chest pain.

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Your left rib cage protects many vital organs like your heart, left lung, left kidney, and your spleen. Any medical condition affecting those organs can result in varying degrees of pain from a dull ache to sore jabbing pains that come and go. Also, digestive conditions like constipation or heartburn can cause aching pains in the left side under your ribs. Sometimes, pain from the left side of your rib cage can radiate to your back, upper abdomen, or shoulder.

Because the exact causes of pain under your left rib cage can be hard to diagnose, it’s important to pay attention to all of your symptoms. For example, sharp pains can be accompanied by burning sensation in your chest, tenderness around the painful area, or nagging aches that are worse when moving.

In this article, you will learn about why you may be having pain in the left side under your ribs. In some cases, you will find out ways to get rid of the pain. I will also answer the question: when left side chest pain is serious enough to visit a doctor.

Symptoms of Pain in Left Side Under Rib Cage

Pain under your left rib cage can occur anywhere in your upper chest, upper abdomen, or the left side of your upper back.

According to doctors from the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms of pain under your left ribs can be any of the following:1

Heart-Related Causes of Pain in Left Side Under Ribs

Pain in the left side under your ribs can be a symptom of serious medical conditions with your heart. Let’s look first of all at types of left-sided chest pain you should never ignore.

Heart attack

A heart attack can start as a dull pain under the left rib cage and become more intense until it feels like a heavy weight is pressing on your chest. Because your heart is located on the left side of your chest, heart attack pain usually affects the left side under your ribs.

Heart attacks happen when not enough oxygen-rich blood reaches the heart due to a blockage in your arteries. Doctors from the National Health Service say that a high-fat diet, smoking, high blood pressure, or being overweight puts you a greater risk of coronary heart disease.2

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Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler on MedicineNet explains that a heart attack feels like squeezing pressure in the center or left side of the chest. The sensation of fullness in the chest usually spreads to the left arm, jaw, and neck. You may also have upper back and rib pain.3

Other heart attack symptoms you shouldn’t ignore include:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Nausea and belching
  • Feeling of a burning sensation in your chest (heartburn-like pain)
  • Sweating and chills without a fever.

Making a few simple lifestyle changes can greatly reduce your risk of a heart attack. Regular exercising, getting and maintaining a healthy weight, and cutting out unhealthy fat from your diet all benefit your heart’s health.

Angina

Another heart-related cause of upper left side squeezing pain under the ribs is angina.

Angina describes a cardiovascular disease where not enough blood gets to your heart. Angina heart pain usually occurs after physical activity or stress because the heart has to work harder to pump blood in your body.

According to doctors from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, angina pain usually starts in the middle of the chest behind the breastbone. It can spread to the left side of the chest, arm, and also cause shoulder pain. In cases of unstable angina, severe squeezing pains in the chest can start suddenly and may lead to a heart attack.4

Other symptoms of stable angina include:

  • Feelings of nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • General weakness
  • Chest pain that lasts less than 5 minutes and eases with rest

Doctors advise that you shouldn’t ignore angina pain if resting doesn’t make the pain better. You should call a doctor immediately, especially if the chest pain comes on suddenly.

Pericarditis

One cause of sudden sharp pains on the left side under your ribs is pericarditis. Doctors say that pericarditis is inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart. This is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection or an autoimmune disorder. Pericarditis usually causes the following symptoms:5

  • Sharp unexpected pains on the left side under the ribs or in the middle of the chest
  • Or, a dull ache in the chest
  • Pain that radiates to one or both shoulders
  • Possible symptoms of a fever

Other Causes of Pain in Left Side Under Rib Cage

Many times, pain that feels as if it is coming from under your left rib cage is actually a problem related to your ribs.

Rib Fracture or bruised rib, injured or pulled chest muscles

Fracturing or breaking a rib can cause pain under left rib cage when breathing and also be to blame for other painful symptoms.

Blunt trauma to your ribs from falling or being in an accident can cause varying degrees of rib pain depending on the extent of the injury. Doctors from the Victoria State Government say that damage to the muscles and ligaments that support your ribs can also be a source of left-sided or right-sided rib pain. You may also experience any of the following symptoms after a rib fracture:6

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  • Tenderness and pain at the injury site
  • Pain when moving your upper body or breathing in deeply
  • Intercostal muscle spasm (the muscles between your ribs)
  • Difficulty breathing

Doctors also warn that damage to the rib cage can also cause injury to vital organs protected by the ribs. For example, a rib injury can cause a punctured lung or damage to the spleen, kidneys, or liver. If this happens, you will also feel varying degrees of pain under your ribs. If the pain doesn’t go away or you have extensive bruising, you should see a doctor.

Usually, plenty of rest and applying hot or cold packs helps to relieve the pain and speed up healing. To help get rid of the pain in the left side after a rib cage injury, you should apply a cold pack 3 or 4 times a day. After 2 or 3 days, you can use a heat pack to help the injury heal quicker. You can also try some of my great home remedies using essential oils for muscle pain.

Intercostal muscle strain

The intercostal muscles are located between your ribs and wrap around to your chest, and they also provide strength to your upper body and rib cage. Overstretching your arms or other injuries can strain your intercostal muscles in the left side of the rib cage resulting in mild to sharp rib pain. The pain can also wrap around the ribs causing pain in the left side of back under ribs.

Dr. Jack McPhilemy from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine says that spraining, overstretching, or tearing your intercostal muscles can cause pain on one side of your chest. Depending on the extent of the muscle sprain or tear, you may find that moving your right or left arm or upper body is very painful. The one-sided chest pain can also occur when stretching, coughing, or sneezing.7

To get rid of pain on the left side that intercostal muscle strain causes, you should use the same home remedies for healing a rib injury.

Inflammation of breastbone (Costochondritis)

Costochondritis is inflammation of the breastbone (sternum) that can result in sudden sharp pains on the left side under your ribs. Sternum pain can be caused by chest infections or minor traumas to your breastbone. Costochondritis pain can be constant and persistent, or it can come and go in varying levels of intensity.

According to doctors from WebMD, the typical symptoms of costochondritis are pain on the left side under your ribs or on the front of your chest. Usually, you can tell costochondritis pain apart from cardiac pain because the breastbone will be tender when pressure is applied. Pain may be worse when breathing in deeply.8

In my article on what to do about breastbone pain, you can find out how ginger can help to relieve joint pain and reduce symptoms of inflammation.

Pain Under Ribs in the Left Side Due to Internal Organs

Medical conditions related to your kidneys, spleen, or lungs can also result in dull aches or sharp throbbing pains under your left rib cage.

Kidney stones

Kidney stones in your left kidney can result in sudden sharp pain in the left side under ribs. In fact, the left-sided flank pain in the back or abdomen can be so intense that it is debilitating.

Your kidneys are located in the thoracic area of your back under your ribs. Dr. Minesh Khatri on WebMD says that kidney stones can cause intense pain below the ribs or severe flank pain. If the kidney stone moves, it can cause sharp abdominal pain that spreads to your groin. Other symptoms of kidney stones can include:9

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  • Sharp pain under your ribs that comes and goes
  • Burning pain when you urinate
  • Throbbing pains that seem to move around your abdominal region
  • Cramping spasms when the kidney stone moves
  • Pain in the left side of back under ribs

There are many effective home remedies that can help to get rid of kidney stone flank pain naturally. For example, apple cider vinegar can help to dissolve kidney stones to make passing them less painful. You should also avoid habits that can damage your kidneys and drink enough water to flush toxins from your urinary system.

Pneumonia

Respiratory chest infections can cause pneumonia which results in pain under left rib cage when breathing or coughing. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that the symptoms of pneumonia can range from mild to severe and can even become life-threatening. The most common pneumonia symptoms include:10

  • Pain under your ribs when you breathe
  • A cough that brings up mucus
  • Signs of an infection like fever, chills, and sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Digestive upset

Pleurisy

Pleurisy can also affect your left lung or right lung and result in one-sided pain below your ribs. Dr. George Schiffman, who is an expert in pulmonary disorders, says that the main symptom of pleurisy is chest pains that intensify when breathing. The inflammation may also cause back pain and spread to the shoulders.

To help reduce the symptoms of pleurisy and pneumonia, it’s important to care for the health of your lungs. You should also know the early signs of lung disease.

Collapsed lung

Dr. John Cunha on eMedicineHealth says that trauma or injury to your chest, smoking, or a complication of a disease can cause a lung to collapse. This causes sharp, stabbing pains in the left or right side depending on which lung is affected. Pneumothorax (collapsed lung) can become a life-threatening condition and requires emergency treatment.11

Digestive Issues Causing Pain in Left Side Under Ribs

Issues with your digestion can also cause mild to severe aches and pains that are felt on one side or the other side of your chest below your ribs.

Gas

Gas can cause sudden sharp pain in the left side under ribs or discomfort on the right side under your right ribs. You can suffer from trapped gas pain after eating carbohydrate-rich foods like foods high in fiber, starchy foods, and dairy products. The buildup of gas in the digestive system can also cause sharp, jabbing pain or cramps in your abdomen.

Many people are surprised that trapped gas can actually cause chest pain. But according to Doctor of Internal Medicine, Matthew Hoffman, gas usually causes pain in the abdomen but it can also cause discomfort and pain in your chest.17

Heartburn

Heartburn (acid reflux) can cause pain on the left side of stomach under ribs after eating. The pain can be so intense that it sometimes resembles a heart attack.

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Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the function of your heart. Doctors from the Cleveland Clinic explain that the chest pain caused by heartburn happens with stomach acid escapes back up your food pipe. Along with chest pain that causes a burning feeling, you may also have nausea and gas pain in your chest under the left ribs or right ribs.16

Other symptoms of heartburn include:

Usually, simple lifestyle changes are enough to prevent the symptoms of heartburn. For example, losing weight and dealing with stress are just two ways to help avoid heartburn. Also, drinking a glass of water with baking soda acts as a natural antacid to neutralize stomach acid and relieve heartburn pains.

Constipation

In some cases, constipation can result in left-sided pain under the ribs or in your lower abdomen. Doctors describe constipation as not being able to pass stools or having difficulty passing hard stool. Sometimes, you may also feel as if you can’t completely empty your bowels.

The journal BMJ reported on a case involving a woman whose pain in the left side of her chest was caused by constipation. The buildup of hard stool in the upper left colon caused mid left chest pain.12

There are many natural ways to relieve the discomfort of constipation. For example, increasing fiber and fluid intake in your diet act as a natural laxative to help you poop easier.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects how your digestive system works and can result in pain under your ribs.

Doctors from the Cleveland Clinic report that some of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are:13

  • Pain below the ribs
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Chronic abdominal cramping pain
  • Excess gas and abdominal bloating
  • Gurgling stomach

Some of the natural ways to relieve IBS symptoms include peppermint capsules to relieve abdominal cramps, taking probiotics, or following the low FODMAP diet.

Other Reasons for Pain Below the Ribs on the Left Side

Panic attacks

Many people who suffer their first panic attack or anxiety attack feel as if they are having a heart attack. Panic disorder can result in tightness in the left side of the chest as well as a racing heartbeat.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, there are a number of reasons why panic attacks cause chest pain below the ribs. For example, stress causes the chest muscles or intercostal muscles to tighten or go into spasms. Also, extreme stress can raise blood pressure and cause the heart to work harder that results in pain under the left ribs.14

If you suffer from panic disorder, please read my article for some natural ways to treat depression and anxiety. There are also many essential oils that have anti-stress properties and can help to control feelings of panic.

When to See a Doctor

Even though left sided pain under the ribs is often caused by medical conditions that aren’t life-threatening, you should never ignore any kind of chest pain. Some types of one-sided pain below the ribs can mimic serious cardiac-related or pulmonary-related conditions and can be difficult to diagnose.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that chest pain can be a sign of a serious medical emergency. If you have chest pain in the following conditions, you should seek prompt medical care:15

  • Squeezing pressure in the center of your chest or under your left ribs that lasts longer than a few minutes.
  • Intense left-sided chest pain that spreads to your left arm, jaw, neck, or shoulders.
  • Chills and sweating.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Sharp, sudden chest pains that feel as if you are being stabbed.
  • Coughing up bloody phlegm or green mucus.
  • Sudden burning chest or back pain that spreads to your neck.

Read these related articles

Article Sources

  1. MayoClinic. Chest pain.
  2. NHS. Heart attack.
  3. MedicineNet. 12 heart attack symptoms and early warning signs.
  4. NHLBI. Angina.
  5. NHLBI. Pericarditis.
  6. BetterHealth. Rib injuries.
  7. WebMD. Strained intercostal muscle.
  8. WebMD. Costochondritis.
  9. WebMD. What are the symptoms of a kidney stone?
  10. MayoClinic. Pneumonia.
  11. eMedicineHealth. Collapsed lung.
  12. BMJ. 2015;350:h166.
  13. ClevelandClinicMed. Irritable bowel syndrome.
  14. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2002; 4(2): 54–62.
  15. MayoClinic. Chest pain: first aid.
  16. ClevelandClinic. Heartburn overview.
  17. WebMd. Gasp pain in chest
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