Symptoms A-Z

Common Causes of Upper Left Abdominal Pain & When to Seek Care

Pain in the upper left abdomen can be commonly caused by a stomach ulcer, acute gastritis, or indigestion. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options for upper left quadrant pain.

This symptom can also be referred to as: upper left belly pain

Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Symptom Checker

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Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Symptoms

Are you experiencing pain in your upper left abdomen? The abdomen can be separated into four quadrants, making it easier to pinpoint the source of your pain. However, it's quite likely that it will resolve on its own.

Upper left abdomen anatomy

The upper left part of the abdomen contains several structures including:

  • Pancreas
  • Spleen
  • Stomach
  • Diaphragm
  • Left lower rib cage
  • Left lower lung
  • Left lobe of the liver
  • Left kidney
  • Left adrenal gland
  • Upper left sections of the large intestine

Pain in the upper left abdomen is also called pain in the left upper quadrant, pain under the left ribcage, or pain in the left hypochondrium.

Common characteristics of pain in the upper left abdomen

The pain and tenderness you may be experiencing can likely be described by the following details:

  • Location: It will likely be beneath the lower edge of the rib cage, on the left side.
  • Sensitive: The pain will be evident on palpation (pressing) of the left upper abdomen.
  • Varied: The pain may range from mild and dull to severe and sharp.
  • Mobile: The pain may travel into the back at the same level, or to the left shoulder.
  • Worse when lying down

Other symptoms

You may also have a general ill feeling, as well as the following:

Who is most often affected?

People who are most likely to experience pain in the upper left abdomen include:

  • Men
  • Drinkers: Five or more alcoholic drinks per day can damage the pancreas
  • Anyone with high triglyceride levels
  • Anyone taking large amounts of prescription medication
  • Anyone using illicit drugs

When is it most likely to occur?

Pain may get worse after eating a large meal, especially one high in fat.

Is pain in the upper left abdomen serious?

Pain can vary in severity depending on the cause.

  • Moderately serious: Ongoing left-sided pain that does not clear up quickly with rest, or that has symptoms that continue to get worse is considered moderately serious.
  • Serious: Left-sided pain accompanied by shortness of breath, pain in the jaw or arm, lightheadedness, or fainting is considered serious.

Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Causes

Causes of pain in the upper left abdomen can be varied. You should consult your physician for pain that doesn't resolve and to receive a definitive diagnosis.

Systemic infections

Several different types of systemic, or body-wide infections, can affect the upper left abdomen, such as those that are:

  • Viral
  • Bacterial
  • Parasitic
  • Fungal

Localized infections

A localized infection confined to one of the organs of the left upper quadrant can also occur.

  • Pancreatitis: This is inflammation of the pancreas [1].
  • Pneumonia or pericarditis: An infection of the lungs is known as pneumonia. An infection of the sac enclosing the heart is known as pericarditis.
  • Abscess (a pocket of infection): These are likely in the kidney.
  • Ulcer: This is an erosion in the stomach or duodenum.

Injury-related causes

Injury to the abdomen can lead to further damage such as internal bleeding. Injuries may be due to accidents, sports injuries, or medical procedures such as surgeries, biopsies, or endoscopic procedures. Specific injuries that may occur include:

  • Lower left rib fracture: The broken rib can puncture the lung, spleen, or kidney.
  • Collapsed lower left lung: A collapsed lung can cause significant pain.
  • Ruptured organ: The spleen is especially vulnerable. This is a medical emergency due to the internal bleeding that may occur.

Idiopathic conditions

These are caused by a combination of diet and exercise choices, along with heredity, allergies, and sometimes viral infections.

  • Autoimmune diseases: Lupus, for example, attacks the organs of the left upper quadrant causing damage and pain [2].
  • Metabolic disorders: These cause imbalances in the way the organs work, such as diabetes [3].
  • Left kidney: Mineral deposits ("stones") can cause severe pain.
  • Liver: Damage to the liver can cause enlargement of the spleen.
  • Stomach: Stomach acids can back up into the esophagus in diseases such as in gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
  • Colon: Pain may come from the part of the colon lying under the left rib cage, caused by constipation or excess gas.

Drugs and medications

Many drugs can cause left upper quadrant pain and associated damage with chronic use [4]. A few are listed here:

  • Aspirin: High doses can cause stomach bleeding and pain [5].
  • NSAIDs: These are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen.
  • Oral antibiotics
  • Opioids: Pain may be due to the side effect of chronic constipation.
  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • Cocaine

Cancer

Cancer is considered a rare cause of pain in the upper left abdomen.

  • Localized tumor: A cancerous growth anywhere in the left upper quadrant can cause pain. There may or may not be a lump in the vicinity of the pain.
  • Blood cancers: These will affect the entire body and cause symptoms in the organs of the left upper quadrant.

8 Possible Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced pain in the upper left abdomen. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Stomach ulcer

A peptic ulcer is a sore in the lining of the stomach or the first part of your small intestine (the duodenum), which causes pain following meals or on an empty stomach.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, moderate abdominal pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps)

Symptoms that never occur with stomach ulcer: pain in the lower left abdomen

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Indigestion (dyspepsia)

Indigestion, also called upset stomach, dyspepsia, or functional dyspepsia, is not a disease but a collection of very common symptoms. Note: Heartburn is a separate condition.

Common causes are eating too much or too rapidly; greasy or spicy foods; overdoing caffeine, alcohol, or carbonated beverages; smoking; and anxiety. Some antibiotics, pain relievers, and vitamin/mineral supplements can cause indigestion.

The most common symptoms are pain, discomfort, and bloating in the upper abdomen soon after eating.

Indigestion that lasts longer than two weeks, and does not respond to simple treatment, may indicate a more serious condition. Upper abdominal pain that radiates to the jaw, neck, or arm is a medical emergency.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. If the symptoms began suddenly, laboratory tests on blood, breath, and stool may be ordered. Upper endoscopy or abdominal x-ray may be done.

For functional dyspepsia – "ordinary" indigestion – treatment and prevention are the same. Eating five or six smaller meals per day with lighter, simpler food; managing stress; and finding alternatives for some medications will provide relief.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: nausea, stomach bloating, dyspeptic symptoms, bloating after meals, vomiting

Symptoms that always occur with indigestion (dyspepsia): dyspeptic symptoms

Symptoms that never occur with indigestion (dyspepsia): vomiting (old) blood or passing tarry stools, rectal bleeding, bloody diarrhea, fever

Urgency: Self-treatment

Acute gastritis

When something interferes with the protective mechanisms of the stomach, a range of problems can occur from mild indigestion to deadly bleeding ulcers. Gastritis is an umbrella term for one of the most common problems, inflammation of the stomach lining.

Symptoms include nausea or vomiting,...

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, which creates and releases insulin and glucagon to keep the sugar levels in your blood stable. It also creates the enzymes that digest your food in the small intestine. When these enzymes accidentally get activated in the pancreas, they digest the pancreas itself, causing pain and inflammation.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, being severely ill, severe abdominal pain, fever

Symptoms that always occur with acute pancreatitis: constant abdominal pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Symptom Checker

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Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that does not improve, but slowly gets worse over time.

Causes include alcoholism; a blocked pancreatic duct; autoimmune disease, where the body's natural defenses turn against itself; and possible genetic factors.

Chronic pancreatitis is most common in men from age 30 to 40 with a history of alcoholism and a family history of the disease, but anyone can be affected.

Symptoms include severe pain in the back and abdomen, especially with eating; weight loss; nausea and vomiting; and diarrhea with oily-appearing, pale-colored stools.

The pancreas is vital for blood sugar control and for secreting certain digestive enzymes. If not treated, chronic pancreatitis can lead to permanent pancreatic damage, diabetes, malnutrition, and chronic pain.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound.

Treatment involves pain management through both medication and surgical procedures. Lifestyle improvements through diet, exercise, and stress management can also be very helpful.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain that comes and goes

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Normal abdominal pain

The complaint of nonspecific abdominal pain and discomfort, with no apparent cause, is one of the most common in medicine. It is a primary reason for patients to visit a medical provider or the emergency room.

The cause of abdominal pain can be difficult to find, because it can come from many different sources: the digestive tract, the urinary tract, the pancreas, the gall bladder, or the gynecologic organs.

The pain may simply be caused by overly sensitive nerves in the gut. This hypersensitivity can occur after repeated abdominal injury and/or it may have an emotional cause due to fear of the pain itself.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, patient history, and simply ruling out any other condition. CT scan is often requested, but can rarely find a specific cause. The benefits must be weighed against the risks of radiation.

Treatment first involves making any needed lifestyle improvements regarding diet, exercise, work, and sleep, in order to reduce stress. In some cases, counseling, hypnosis, mild pain relievers, and antidepressants are helpful.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), vaginal discharge, fever, nausea

Symptoms that always occur with normal abdominal pain: abdominal pain (stomach ache)

Symptoms that never occur with normal abdominal pain: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, severe abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss, vaginal discharge

Urgency: Self-treatment

Kidney stone

A kidney stone is a stone made up of various possible materials that forms in the kidneys. Factors that increase the risk of forming kidney stones include high levels of calcium, uric acid, and oxalate in the urine, low levels of citrate in the urine, abnormal urine pH, low urine volume, certain urin...

Heart attack in a woman

A heart attack happens when the heart does not receive enough oxygenated blood to meet its demand, resulting in the death of heart tissue. This can be caused by a decreased supply of oxygenated blood or too high of a demand.

Symptoms include chest pain or pressure th...

Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Treatments and Relief

As long as you have not suffered a severe injury, treatment for pain in the upper left abdomen can begin at home. If symptoms persist, you should consult your physician for further medical treatment.

At-home treatments

Several at-home remedies can begin to alleviate some of your symptoms and possibly prevent them from worsening.

  • Stop drinking alcohol and stop smoking: Your medical provider can give you referrals for specialists.
  • Improve diet: Avoid high-fat foods, sugar, and carbonated drinks. Try to work in more nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Drink water: Several glasses of water per day will help to flush out toxins and improve your metabolism.

Medical treatments

You should consult your physician to discuss treatment options for chronic, ongoing symptoms. He or she may also be able to adjust or substitute your medicines.

When it is an emergency

Experiencing the following symptoms in addition to your abdominal pain signal an emergency.

  • Worsening symptoms and intensifying pain: Hospitalization and/or surgery may be needed right away.
  • Pain and shortness of breath when inhaling
  • Heart attack symptoms: These include pain in the left chest, arm, jaw, or neck, as well as a cold sweat, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness or fainting.

FAQs About Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen

Here are some frequently asked questions about pain in the upper left abdomen.

Does diabetes cause pain in the upper left abdomen?

The pancreas is located in the upper left quadrant. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which can lead to diabetes when it is severe or long-standing [1,3]. This causes pain and sometimes the inability to produce insulin.

Is pain in the upper left abdomen connected to, or a warning of, a heart attack?

The heart is technically located in the chest, not the upper abdomen, but it can be hard to tell the difference if a heart attack is occurring. Heart attacks involve other symptoms such as pain in the arm, jaw, or neck, along with a cold sweat, shortness of breath, or nausea and vomiting [6].

Is pain in the upper left abdomen connected to, or a warning of, an aortic aneurysm?

An aortic aneurysm is a bulging in the wall of the aorta, the largest artery in the body that runs straight down from the heart. There may be pain almost anywhere in the back and/or abdomen, though it will most often be felt lower in the back at about the level of the navel [7,8].

Is pain in the upper left abdomen a sign of an abnormal pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy, in which the fetus is growing inside a fallopian tube instead of inside the uterus, first causes internal bleeding. This irritates the nerves and causes pain into the upper abdomen and shoulders. There will also be signs of very early pregnancy and sudden, severe pain if the tube begins to rupture (a life-threatening medical emergency).

Is pain in the upper left abdomen part of a normal pregnancy?

A normal pregnancy can cause some conditions that lead to pain in the upper left abdomen. Constipation is a common one, as is heartburn [9]. However, a complication of pregnancy, called pre-eclampsia, can cause general upper abdominal pain and high blood pressure. Pre-eclampsia is considered an emergency [10].

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • How would you describe the nature of your abdominal pain?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your pain in the upper left abdomen

Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced pain in the upper left abdomen have also experienced:

  • 9% Nausea
  • 4% Diarrhea
  • 4% Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)

People who have experienced pain in the upper left abdomen were most often matched with:

  • 44% Stomach Ulcer
  • 44% Acute Gastritis
  • 11% Indigestion (Dyspepsia)

People who have experienced pain in the upper left abdomen had symptoms persist for:

  • 41% Less than a day
  • 34% Less than a week
  • 11% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Pain In The Upper Left Abdomen Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your pain in the upper left abdomen

References

  1. Phillips MM. Acute Pancreatitis. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated October 26, 2017. MedlinePlus Link
  2. How Lupus Affects the Gastrointestinal System. The National Resource Center on Lupus. Updated July 12, 2013. NRCL Link
  3. Wolosin JD, Edelman SV. Diabetes and the Gastrointestinal Tract. Clinical Diabetes. 2000;18(4). Clinical Diabetes Link
  4. Russell RI. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs and Gastrointestinal Damage - Problems and Solutions. Postgraduate Medical Journal. 2001;77:82-88. BMJ Journals Link
  5. Answers About Aspirin. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Published January 2014. Harvard Health Publishing Link
  6. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack. American Heart Association. Updated June 30, 2016. AHA Link
  7. Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
  8. Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. NHS inform. Updated October 11, 2018. NHS inform Link
  9. Ectopic Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association. Updated July 20, 2017. American Pregnancy Association Link
  10. Signs & Symptoms. Preeclampsia Foundation Link. Updated March 29, 2016. Preeclampsia Foundation Link

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.