If You Have Left Side Abdominal Pain, Here’s What It Could Mean
Abdominal pain is one of the top reasons people seek medical treatment—and no wonder: It could be anything from a pulled muscle to—in very rare cases—a life-threatening aneurysm.
Identify the type of left side abdominal pain
Belly discomfort can be confusing. "Abdominal pain is a common symptom that leads to millions of outpatient visits, and is, in fact, one of the most common reasons for people to see a doctor," says Rosario Ligresti, MD, a gastroenterologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, New Jersey. If the left side abdominal pain came on suddenly and is so severe that you need to go to the emergency room, says Dr. Ligresti, then a doctor may run specialized diagnostic x-ray tests, including a CT scan. While serious conditions such as ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, an aortic tear, perforated or twisted bowel, and low blood flow conditions to the bowel (ischemia) may require emergency surgery to correct, many other conditions can be safely evaluated in the doctor's office.
Locate the pain
When determining the cause of left side abdominal pain, the doctor will first find the exact location, explains Dr. Ligresti. If the pain is mostly in the upper left of the abdomen, it could be stomach or kidney causes like indigestion, gas, reflux, gastritis, ulcers, and kidney stones, he says. If it is in the left lower abdomen, doctors tend to think of colon conditions (diverticulitis and colitis), gynecologic causes (ovarian cysts or endometriosis), or testicular conditions. In addition to pain, a doctor will look for fever, bloody stools, persistent nausea and vomiting, weight loss, or change in urination. "We also want to know if the pain is associated with numbness, burning, tingling or itching of the skin, or if there are any skin rashes (especially blisters) over the area," says Dr. Ligresti. These are the 10 types of pain you should never ignore.
The American Gastroenterological Society defines diverticulitis as inflammation of the pockets (diverticula) in the wall of the colon. "Diverticulitis is one of the most common sources of left lower abdomen pain and classically presents with associated fever, change in bowel habits, sometimes bloody stools, chills, and fairly localized symptoms," says Dr. Ligresti. Other symptoms can include nausea and lack of appetite. In serious cases, diverticulitis can lead to bleeding, infection, or blockages. Diagnosing the condition requires a physical exam as well as lab and imaging tests. "This is an important diagnosis to make since it requires treatment with antibiotics right away," says Dr. Ligresti. More complicated cases may require more serious measures, even surgery
Colitis (inflammation of the colon) symptoms appear more gradually than diverticulitis. "Also, colitis tends to present with changes in bowel function (diarrhea or bloody diarrhea) and diverticulitis usually does not," says Dr. Ligresti. Colitis can be caused by infections, food poisoning, or poor blood supply, or due to ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disorder caused be an abnormal immune reaction in the colon. Here are 8 signs you could have ulcerative colitis.
The term gastritis is a catchall for conditions that involve inflammation of the lining of the stomach. The inflammation can be due to many factors including infections, regular use of pain relievers or other medications, or drinking too much alcohol. Symptoms of gastritis may happen suddenly (acute gastritis) or develop over time (chronic gastritis), and in some cases, gastritis can lead to ulcers. Ulcers and gastritis are some of the most common causes of upper abdominal pain and typically present with a deep, gnawing abdominal pain that may get worse at night and then improve after eating, explains Dr. Ligresti. These conditions can also often be associated with nausea and vomiting. "This is an important diagnosis to make since treatment is very effective if started early," he says.
If you've had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus can lie dormant for decades before returning as shingles. If your left side abdominal pain comes with skin symptoms like a rash, numbness, or burning, your doctor will need to test for shingles, says Dr. Ligresti. Check out these 11 signs of shingles you might be ignoring.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm
This is a scary one because the aorta is a major blood vessel that supplies blood to the body, explains Gina Lynem, MD, internal medicine doctor with the Henry Ford Health System in Dearborn, Michigan. An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) means a wall of the aorta is bulging, and it often grows slowly without symptoms; a burst AAA is life-threatening. "As an abdominal aortic aneurysm enlarges, some people may notice a pulsating feeling near the navel, deep constant pain in the abdomen or on the side of your abdomen, or back pain," she says. Every year, 200,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm, according to the Society for Vascular Surgery. "If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your physician immediately," says Dr. Lynem.
We all know the feeling of discomfort, feeling too full after eating, bloating, a burning sensation in your gut, and belching. Also known as dyspepsia, indigestion can result from underlying issues with diet, anxiety, reaction to medications, pregnancy, or disease, explains Dr. Lynem. There are a variety of over-the-counter medicines available to treat indigestion, but often evaluating and changing your diet is the most effective course, she says. Here's how to tell if your indigestion is actually GERD.
The ovaries are located in the lower abdomen on both sides of the uterus. Some women experience ovarian cysts, fluid-filled sacs that develop in or on the ovaries, but usually they're painless and go away on their own. "Many women won't even realize they've had one," says Dr. Lynem. "However, in some cases, they can trigger pelvic pain." If the left side abdominal pain is sharp, accompanied by fever, dizziness, or rapid breathing, it may indicate a ruptured cyst or ovarian torsion; both need immediate treatment. While there is no way to prevent an ovarian cyst, they can be detected during a routine pelvic examination or through ultrasound. Look out for these 7 signs of ovarian cancer that you might be ignoring.
Kidney stones occur when pieces of the hard mineral deposits that build up naturally in the kidney break off and enter your ureter, explains Dr. Lynem. "In addition to abdominal pain, you'll likely notice urinary symptoms such as discomfort, discoloration, a foul smell, or persistent need to empty the bladder," she says. According to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), more than a half-million people go to emergency rooms for kidney stone problems every year. Kidney stones are caused by not drinking enough water, exercise (too much or too little), obesity, weight-loss surgery, or eating food with too much salt or sugar, according to the NKF. "The best way to prevent and get through the pain of a kidney stone is to stay well-hydrated," says Dr. Lynem. Here are the 7 innocent mistakes that put your kidneys in trouble.
Pulled or strained abdominal muscle
There are many things that can strain an abdominal muscle, but it most commonly results from overstretching or over-exercising, says Dr. Lynem. "It will feel like a cramp that could also involve acute pain, bruising, swelling, or spasms," she says. The best way to recover is to rest and apply a cold pack for comfort, she adds. Don't miss these 7 other types of stomach pain and what they mean.
Pelvic inflammatory disease
Also known as PID, pelvic inflammatory disease is an infection and inflammation of a woman's pelvic organs, including the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and cervix. You can treat it with antibiotics, explains Dr. Lynem. Sexually active women under the age of 25 are at the highest risk for developing PID. According to the Centers for Disease Control, PID is often caused by untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and one out of eight women with PID will experience difficulty getting pregnant. "Pelvic inflammatory disease may not produce any symptoms, but in other cases, it can cause abdominal or pelvic pain, fever, vaginal discharge, painful urination, or painful sexual intercourse," says Dr. Lynem. Check out these 24 secrets pain doctors won't tell you.
Burping, flatulence, bloating, and pain or discomfort in your abdomen are all symptoms of gas—a normal part of the digestive process. Most people pass gas 14 to 23 times per day, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "Gas is typically not painful, but it can be annoying and embarrassing," says Dr. Lynem. Gas is most often caused by swallowing air (from chewing gum or eating or drinking too fast) or when bacteria in the large intestine break down certain foods that are prone to cause gas. "Diet is often to blame for an increase in gas," says Dr. Lynem. People with certain conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or an intolerance to lactose or fructose are also more likely to experience gas.
The most obvious symptom of a hernia is a bulge or lump in your abdomen that results from an organ pushing through an opening in muscle or other tissues, explains Dr. Lynem. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are several types of hernia, but the most common one is an inguinal hernia: The intestine or fat pops through the abdominal wall or the groin. Pain may worsen while coughing, laughing, exercising, or straining. "A doctor should be consulted for a specific treatment plan that may or may not require surgery," says Dr. Lynem. Here are 7 more silent hernia symptoms you just might miss.
This is a partial or complete physical blockage of your small or large intestine that prevents routine digestion, explains Dr. Lynem. Common causes include scar tissue resulting from surgery, hernia, and tumors; symptoms of an intestinal obstruction can include pain, abdominal swelling, and loss of appetite. "Treatment varies, depending on the source and severity of the blockage, but a blockage can be severe enough to require a hospital stay and even surgery, so be sure to seek immediate treatment if you are not passing any gas or stool," says Dr. Lynem. Complications include a tear in the intestinal wall or infection. Next, check out these 21 secrets your gut is trying to tell you.
- Rosario Ligresti, MD, a gastroenterologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, NJ
- Mayo Clinic: “Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm”
- US National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: “Aortic Dissection”
- American Gastroenterological Association: “Diverticulitis”
- American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy: “Understanding Diverticulosis”
- US National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: “Colitis”
- Mayo Clinic: “Gastritis”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Shingles (Herpes Zoster)”
- Gina Lynem, MD, internal medicine doctor with the Henry Ford Health System in Dearborn, MI
- Society for Vascular Surgery: “Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm”
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Ovarian Cysts”
- National Kidney Foundation: “Kidney Stones”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Gas”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Hernia”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Inguinal Hernia”
- Mayo Clinic: “Intestinal Obstruction”