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Pain and discomfort in the left upper portion of the abdomen just below the rib cage may be caused by a number of things, considering that there are many anatomical structures found in this part of the body. Portions of the left lung, the stomach, the intestine, the spleen, the pancreas, the liver, the kidney, the adrenal gland, muscles, skin, and other structures are found in this area, which is also called the left upper quadrant of the abdomen. The heart, ribs and major blood vessels are also found close to this area. Therefore, any condition that affects any of these structures may cause pain or discomfort in the left upper abdomen.

Common Causes of Pain in the Left Upper Abdomen

  • Gastroenteritis, or stomach flu is a common cause for abdominal pain, which is related to a virus or a bacterial infection. Contaminated food or water are the common culprits, which cause upper abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and loss of appetite.

  • Food poisoning results from ingestion of contaminated food/drinks, and leads to severe abdominal pain accompanied by vomiting and fever.

  • Trapped wind in the stomach or large bowel can cause discomfort and abdominal pain, bloating, swelling, and cramps. This condition is often relieved by passing wind.

  • Stomach disorders, such as gastritis, peptic ulcer and stomach cancer usually lead to upper abdominal pain, mostly in the middle, but also in the left side. Symptoms include belching, nausea, early satiety, bloating, poor appetite, weight loss, pain during/after meals and sometimes, passing out blood or dark stools.

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common cause of extreme bowel discomfort, characterized by chronic diarrhea or constipation. Other inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease (ulcerative colitis) and chronic colitis also cause pain, nausea, diarrhea, and low grade fever.

  • Acute pancreatitis due to inflammation of the pancreas related to trauma, excessive alcohol consumption or use of certain medications can cause symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. On the other hand, chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer can also lead to pale stools, poor appetite, chronic diarrhea, and weight loss.

  • Diverticulitis involving the left side of the colon is common people older than 40 years. It can cause severe abdominal pain, nausea, marked changes in bowel habits (constipation and diarrhea), and fever.

  • Pyelonephritis or kidney infection on the left side can cause abdominal pain and back pain accompanied by vomiting, fever, and chills. Other kidney disorders such as kidney stones or polycystic kidney disease are also possible causes of left-sided abdominal pain.

  • Disorders of the spleen. The spleen is an organ located on the upper left side of the abdomen. Any condition that causes the spleen to enlarge (splenomegaly), such as parasitic, viral or bacterial infections, leukemia, and liver disease, can cause pain in the upper left abdominal area.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of left upper abdominal pain may be determined after a thorough medical evaluation of the patient's history, physical examination and laboratory exams. These may include blood tests, imaging exams (such as CT scan, x-ray, MRI, etc) and endoscopic exams. Treatments may include diet changes, medications and sometimes, surgery.

When to See a Doctor

Sometimes, acute discomfort or pain in the abdomen goes away with diet modification, stress reduction and some over-the-counter drugs. However, if you have acute, chronic, or recurrent abdominal pain that is not relieved by these home remedies, consult a doctor immediately.

Symptoms that should prompt you to seek immediate help include high fever, repeated bouts of vomiting or diarrhea, prolonged constipation, severe pain, passing of blood, significant weight loss, and other symptoms of feeling ill.

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