Pain in The Left Side of Back Under Ribs: What It Means According to Science

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Pain in The Left Side of Back Under Ribs: What It Means According to Science
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Most people at some time in their lives will suffer from pain in the left side of their back. There can be many reasons for back pain under the left ribs that can result in deep aches or sharp stabbing pains. For example, muscle or ligament strain, herniated discs in your thoracic spine, or spinal or rib injuries can cause inflammation in the rib cage. This can result in types of rib pain that feel like a burning sensation, sharp uncomfortable pains, dull throbbing aches, or tenderness.

In some cases, pain on the left side under ribs towards the back could actually be from organs that your ribs protect. Under the left side of your rib cage are your heart, your left kidney, left lung, and spleen. Because left sided pain in your upper back or chest can be heart-related, you should never ignore that type of pain. Pain that is related to your heart may start off as squeezing pressure or tightness in your chest before spreading to your left arm and back.

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There are many natural remedies for relieving pain that comes from your left ribs or right ribs. For example, you can use a warm compress for muscle and joint stiffness that results in nagging aches when you move or stretch. Also, gentle exercises to strengthen your middle and lower back can provide extra support for your upper body and relieve back pain.

This article examines the various reasons why you may suffer from pain in the left side of your back under your ribs and what you can do about it. You will also find out how to treat upper or middle back pain without having to use painkillers.

Anatomy of Thoracic Back and Left-Side Rib Pain

Your spine is divided into 3 regions – the cervical spine in your neck, the thoracic spine in your upper and middle back, and the lumbar area at your lower back. Knowing the anatomy of the thoracic back can help to locate the source of back rib pain on your left side.

According to the journal PLoS One, the thoracic spine composes of 12 vertebrae that are attached to your rib cage. The ribs wrap around your body to your chest and connect to your sternum (breastbone). The rib cage helps to give support and stability to your thoracic spine and helps to move your upper body.1

Between your ribs are muscles called intercostal muscles. These muscles are located between your ribs and wrap around to your chest. They also provide strength to your upper body and rib cage, however, they can be a source of left-side rib pain if they get injured or inflamed.1

Another feature of the anatomy of the thoracic back and your spine is small discs that help to cushion your vertebrae. These jelly-like structures help to both hold your vertebrae together and act as shock absorbers. If the disc ruptures and presses on a nerve in your spine, you may feel intense rib pain that wraps around to your chest.1

Dr. Gerard Malanga who specializes in rehabilitation medicine says that nerve pain in the ribs and spine can radiate to other areas of your body. Therefore, any damage to your ribs on the left side or right can cause pain that is felt elsewhere. Intercostal muscle pain or a herniated disc can cause shoulder blade pain, shooting pains down one leg, or even abdominal pain.2

The Symptoms of Rib and Back Pain on the Left Side

If you experience pain in your back ribs on the left side, Dr. Malanga says that you may have some of the following symptoms:2

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  • Back pain that feels like electric shocks
  • Shooting or jabbing pains that wrap around the chest
  • Burning sensation in your rib cage
  • Dull pain that you feel in your middle back
  • Pain that radiates from your middle back to the top of your spine or lumbar region

Common Causes of Back Pain Under the Ribs

Rib and spine pain that affects the lower, middle or upper back is very common among the general population and can affect men and women. According to a report published in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, back pain is one of the major sources of pain that people suffer.3

The Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy reported on some of the most common causes of aching pains and discomfort in your upper or middle back. Some of these include:4

  • Pulling, straining or tearing a muscle. Lifting heavy items, overreaching, or being out of shape can cause damage to your intercostal muscles or back muscles.
  • Herniated disc. Damage to your spine could cause a disc to rupture and press on a nerve. This can send shooting or burning pains around your ribs or cause lower back pain.
  • Degenerative diseases. Chronic conditions like osteoarthritis or joint wear and tear can cause pain in your back under the ribs.
  • Rib injury. Any kind of trauma to your upper body that affects your rib cage, spine, muscles, or ligaments can cause mild to severe back pain. If the blunt trauma damages an internal organ, then this could also be a source of deep aches in your back under your ribs.
  • Being overweight. Carrying around excess weight puts strain on your lower and middle back which can injure muscles and ligaments in your back. If you are overweight, you are also at greater risk of herniating a disc.

Causes of Left-Side Back Pain Under Ribs

Let’s look in more detail at what could be the main reasons why your left back or left side of your rib cage is sore.

Injury to muscles in the rib cage

One of the most common reasons for back pain or rib pain is an injury to the intercostal muscles in your rib cage or back. Rib muscle injuries can be caused by trauma to your left-side ribs, sudden upper body movements, or incorrect lifting. This can cause pain that ranges from a mild ache to sharp jabbing pains that can spread to your back.

The journal The Physician and SportsMedicine reports that rib stress fractures and strains can cause muscle pain in the ribs. Rib injuries can happen due to blunt force trauma on the rib cage or repetitive strain injuries. The severity of rib cage pain and back pain depends greatly on the extent of the injury.5

According to doctors from the Victoria State Government, other symptoms of painful rib cage muscle injuries can include:6

  • Pain that intensifies when breathing deeply
  • Rib cage muscle spasms
  • Reduced range of upper body movement
  • Tenderness when touching the injured ribs

At the end of the article, you can find out how to use some of the best home remedies for treating rib cage pain and back pain.

Rib cage nerve damage (intercostal neuralgia)

Intercostal neuralgia is a condition that describes pain in the ribs caused by damage to the rib cage nerves. This can be the result of an injury, inflammation, injury to chest muscles, or shingles.

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According to a study published in the Journal of Neurology & Translational Neuroscience, nerve damage of the ribs can result in middle back pain that wraps around to the front of the chest. Depending on the location of the damaged nerves, you may also experience shoulder pain, chest pain, and pain in the upper thigh.7

The symptoms of nerve damage that affects the thoracic spine and ribs include:

  • Sharp shooting pains in the left rib cage or right rib cage
  • Burning pains that cause a lot of discomfort
  • Muscle spasms in your back, shoulder, or arm
  • Tenderness when touching your rib cage
  • Loss of sensation in your middle back or chest wall

Herniated disc in the thoracic spine

Damaging a disc in the thoracic spine because of injury or wear and tear can cause sharp debilitating back pain. The pain from a herniated spinal disc is usually the result of pressure on the root of the nerve that sends pain to other areas of your body.

According to researchers from the University of Maryland, back pain often accompanies a thoracic disc rupture. This can cause sharp pains that spread from the back to your chest, shoulders, or legs. If the disc injury happens at the lower part of the thoracic spine, you may have numbness and tingling in one or both legs.8

The journal Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England reports that thoracic disc ruptures can also be a cause of abdominal pain. This can often be mistaken for digestive upset or other gastrointestinal problems.9

A herniated disc in the middle back can also cause some of the following symptoms:

  • Left-sided back pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling along the length of the nerve
  • Chronic back pain
  • Lower back pain when getting up from a chair or standing for long periods of time

Poor posture

Poor posture can also cause a number of painful conditions that result in back pain and pain under your ribs. Sitting or standing with incorrect posture puts extra strain on the ligaments and muscles in your middle back.

The journal Orthopedia, Traumatologia, Rehabilitacja reported on a study showing that poor posture can affect joints, ligaments, and muscles in the lumbar and thoracic regions of the back. Repetitive strain injuries, sitting in the wrong position, and standing incorrectly can put pressure on the nerve roots and be a source of chronic back pain.10

According to the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, body posture is also a major reason for back pain during pregnancy.11

Improving your posture can help to prevent back pain and rib pain becoming a chronic painful condition. Proper posture will also help to relieve symptoms of sciatica.

Fibromyalgia

One reason for chronic pain under your left ribs or constant back pain is fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes pain throughout your body.

According to doctors from the Cleveland Clinic, fibromyalgia often causes back pain in the middle and lumbar regions. Depending on your condition, the pain may be felt on just one side of your body. However, fibromyalgia can cause pain and discomfort in any of your muscles or joints.12  

Doctors from the National Health Service say that other symptoms of fibromyalgia include:13

  • Deep aches or sharp stabbing pains in your back, neck, or other places in your body
  • Muscle spasms and stiffness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent headaches

If you have to live with a chronic painful condition, then you should learn about the foods to avoid when living with chronic pain.

Osteoarthritis

Any type of arthritis of the thoracic spine can result in persistent inflammation because of irritation in your vertebrae.

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Dr. Laurence Knott on Patient.info reports that osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis can be a cause of thoracic back pain and dysfunction. One of the reasons for this is that the middle part of the spine is especially susceptible to degenerative or inflammatory conditions. This can cause difficulty performing day-to-day tasks and make moving your upper body painful.14

Some of the home remedies to manage arthritic conditions include foods that reduce inflammation. You may also find that daily supplements of turmeric help to reduce the symptoms of inflammation.

Costochondritis

Costochondritis is inflammation of the joints between your breastbone and your ribs. Although costochondritis commonly causes chest pain, the pain can wrap around your ribs to your back.

According to Dr. William Shiel on eMedicineHealth, the sharp jabbing chest pains from costochondritis can radiate to your back and be a reason for back pain. Usually, it’s your 4th, 5th, and 6th ribs that are affected. The pain can feel worse when you cough or breathe in deeply.15

Other symptoms of costochondritis include:

  • Tenderness when pushing on your sternum
  • Pain radiating from your chest to abdomen
  • Sharp sudden pains when sneezing, coughing, or breathing deeply

Costochondritis can cause chest pain that resembles cardiac-related pain. Therefore, it’s important to see a doctor for any chest pain.

Causes of Left-Side Back Pain Under Ribs Due to Internal Organs

Sometimes, left-sided pain under your ribs actually originates from a medical condition affecting one or more of your internal organs. The location of your heart, left lung and kidney, spleen, and part of your pancreas is in your left upper quadrant.

Cardio-related pain

Squeezing chest pains that feel like a lot of pressure pushing on your chest could be signs of an impending heart attack or angina. Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler on MedicineNet says that heart-related pains are often accompanied by nausea, extreme fatigue, or pressure in the upper back. A heart attack or unstable angina can be fatal conditions. Therefore, you should seek emergency help if you have any signs of a heart attack.16

Problems with left kidney

Your left kidney is located in the back of your left rib cage. Kidney stones or kidney disease can cause left-sided back pain and flank pain if the infection or stones enter your urinary tract. Doctors say that kidney stones can cause back pain anywhere from your middle back to your groin.17

Enlarged spleen

Your spleen is located on the left side of your upper abdomen. Conditions like viral or bacterial infections, rheumatoid arthritis, trauma to your left rib cage, or cancer can cause the spleen to swell. This can cause left-sided pain under your ribs, and the pain may spread to your left shoulder.18

Issues with the left lung

Infections or inflammation that affect your left lung will also cause pain under your left ribs in your back. Pneumonia, pleurisy, or a collapsed lung can cause sharp, intensely jabbing pains in your back.

There are many natural ways to cleanse your lungs and help prevent acute or chronic lung infections developing.

Best Home Treatments for Rib Pain and Middle Back Pain

Let’s look at some of the best home remedies to alleviate rib pain and pain in your thoracic back.

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Warm or cold compress

Applying a warm or cold compress to your sore ribs can help to reduce inflammation and get rid of the pain. Using heat or cold can help to treat muscle strains and tears and soothe nerve pain.

When should you use heat or cold for a rib injury that affects your muscles or nerves? Doctors from Johns Hopkins Medical center answer the question as follows:19

  • Cold treatment for rib pain. In the first 48 hours after the initial injury, use cold compresses to reduce swelling and prevent blood flow causing bruising.
  • Heat treatment for muscle pain in the back. After the initial swelling has gone down, you should switch to heat compresses to get rid of back pain. The heat increases blood circulation and promotes healing.

How to make a compress for sore rib pain relief:

You can use an old clean sock and rice to make an effective cold or hot compress. This is what you should do:

  1. Fill an old sock 3/4 full with rice and tie at the top.
  2. For a cold compress place the rice-filled sock in the freezer for a few hours.
  3. To make a warm compress put the rice sock in a microwave and heat on full power for 1-2 minutes.

In the first 2 days after an injury, place the cold pack on the sore ribs or back for 15-20 minutes at a time. After this time, place the sock back in the freezer. Use every hour or so to reduce pain and swelling in an injured rib.

After 2 days, switch over to using a warm compress on the sore area on our back or ribs. Place the warm compress (make sure it’s not too hot) on the painful area for 20 minutes. Repeat 3 or 4 times a day to help speed up the healing process and get rid of rib pain in your back.

Exercises for Middle or Upper Back Pain

Exercising the middle back can help to reduce back pain by increasing strength of the muscles and ligaments that support your spine and ribs. Regular strengthening exercises help to also prevent injury that causes rib and back pain.

Stretching exercises for back pain relief

According to physiotherapist Dr. Phil Page, gentle back stretches can help to release muscular tension and at the same time strengthen the back.20

Prayer stretch to release tension from your middle back:

  1. Start on your hands and knees and make sure that your buttocks are touching your heels.
  2. Inhale deeply and place the palms of your hands on the floor.
  3. Slowly extend your hand forward as far as you can and exhale as you do this.
  4. Try to lengthen your back as much as possible.
  5. Let your forehead touch the floor, making sure your buttocks are still on your heels.
  6. Hold the position for 30 seconds to release tension in your back and treat back pain.
  7. Repeat the exercise for back pain 2 or 3 times every day to strengthen your spine and increase flexibility in your middle back.

Prayer stretch for pain on left side under ribs towards back

Framing the door exercise:

This exercise helps to increase mobility in your middle and upper back and can help to alleviate thoracic back pain.

  1. Stand straight and imagine that there is a door frame around you.
  2. Place both hands in front of you with your palms touching.
  3. Slowly raise your arms in the air until fully extended.
  4. Separate your hands and turn your palms outward and move your arms to “touch” each side of the door frame.
  5. Slowly bring your arms down the sides of the imaginary door frame.
  6. When your elbows are as far down as they can go, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  7. Remember, not to tense your shoulders.
  8. Repeat the set several times to exercise the ligaments and muscles in your back to strengthen them.

door frame exercise

Other ways to alleviate thoracic back pain is to use a foam roller. Please see my article on the best foam roller exercises for getting rid of back pain for good.

When to See a Doctor

Back pain usually goes away on its own or with the help of home remedies that are effective for back pain. However, in some cases, it’s important to see a doctor for severe or chronic back pain. Doctors from the National Institutes of Health recommend visiting a doctor if you have the following types of back pain:

  • Your back pain is severe and home treatments don’t give relief from the pain.
  • You have tingling in your arms and legs.
  • You have back pain after suffering a trauma.
  • You develop bladder or bowel problems.

Read these related articles:

Medical Sources

  1. PLoS One. 2017; 12(6): e0178733.
  2. Medscape. Thoracic discogenic pain syndrome.
  3. Ann Rheum Dis. 2014;73:968-974.
  4. J Man Manip Ther. 2015 Jul; 23(3): 162–168.
  5. Phys Sportsmed.2016;44(1):93-6.
  6. BetterHealth. Rib injuries.
  7. J Neurol Transl Neurosci. 5(1): 1075 (2017)
  8. UMMS. Herniated thoracic disc.
  9. Ann R Coll Surg Engl. 2009 Jul; 91(5): W4–W6.
  10. Ortop Traumatol Rehabil.2011 Jan-Feb;13(1):59-71.
  11. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016 Apr; 28(4): 1199–1207.
  12. ClevelandClinic. Fibromyalgia.
  13. NHS. Fibromyalgia.
  14. PatientInfo. Thoracic back pain.
  15. eMedicineHealth. Costochondritis.
  16. MedicineNet. 12 heart attack symptoms.
  17. MedicineNet. Kidney pain.
  18. WebMD. Enlarged spleen.
  19. HopkinsMedicine. Ice packs vs. warm compress for pain.
  20. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Feb; 7(1): 109–119.
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3 Responses to Pain in The Left Side of Back Under Ribs: What It Means According to Science

  1. Prudence says:

    I was amazingly helped. Thank you so much

  2. Veronica Valenzuela says:

    I had a total hysterectomy in 2009 with stage one CA. My dad had lung CA as well. I have sharp left side back pain recently and I get rid of pain by deep breathing. Should I go see a Dr or is it I just move wrong?
    Also. I feel a stabbing prickly pain in top left near breast bone n under clavicle at times recently. Again I feel breathe to rid pain. Kinda feels like sharp pin pricks.
    I just worry VS has attacked my internal organs. What kind of Doc should I go see?
    Thank you!

    • Jenny Hills, Nutritionist and Medical Writer says:

      Hi Veronica, any unusual pain or a sharp pain is not something to be ignored. Why take any unnecessary risk? Usually the first point of call is your family doctor who can start the investigation, and if needed – can refer you to the right specialist.

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