What Pain on Your Left Side Could Mean

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
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Pain on the left side of your abdomen is common. Because pain can originate in the organs, muscles, or bone structures on the left side of the body, it can indicate a variety of conditions. The pain might feel dull, achy, sharp, or stabbing.

Female on couch with left arm up stretching left side
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Pain that persists for a long period of time may indicate a chronic condition, such as a stomach ulcer. Sudden pain may mean an acute or emergent condition, such as a kidney stone.

Pain is not normal, but it is not always serious. Treatment may or may not be necessary.

This article looks at pain on the left side, including symptoms, common causes, and when to call your doctor.

Types and symptoms of left sided abdominal pain

Pain on the left side of your abdomen may feel dull, achy, sharp, or stabbing. It may last a short time (acute pain) or a long time (chronic pain). 

The type of pain and its location can be clues to what is causing it. The pain might start in one place and move, or radiate, to another. This is called referred pain. 

Other symptoms you experience along with the pain can be very important in figuring out the cause of your pain. Examples of other symptoms include:

Sites of left sided pain

Pain in the left side of your abdomen usually comes from one of the organs in that part of your body. Conditions or disorders involving these organs can cause left sided pain around the abdominal area.

Organs and structures on the left side of your abdomen that might cause pain include the:

  • abdominal muscles
  • colon, specifically the descending colon
  • female reproductive organs, including the left ovary and fallopian tube
  • heart
  • left kidney
  • left lung
  • pancreas
  • spleen
  • stomach
  • small intestine
  • rib cage

Common causes of left sided abdominal pain

The sections below discuss some structures and organs in which left sided abdominal pain may originate.

Abdominal muscles

Abdominal muscles include a band of five muscles between the ribs and the pelvis. They protect and hold internal organs in place, support your body posture and movements, and aid important bodily functions, such as breathing, coughing, sneezing, and removing waste.

Overusing, overstretching, or intensely twisting these muscles can strain them and cause pain. 

Other symptoms may include:

Treatment for abdominal muscle strain may include:

  • resting
  • gently stretching
  • undergoing physical therapy
  • taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Colon

Infections, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and other conditions of the descending colon can cause pain and cramping in the left side of the abdomen.

Other symptoms may include:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • weight loss
  • fever
  • blood or mucus in the stool
  • tenderness when pressing on the lower abdomen

A condition that blocks the colon may cause cramping pain and constipation. Cancer of the colon may cause a dull pain, if at all. As the condition progresses, it may cause cramping.
Treatment depends on the specific cause. Infections and IBD may only require medications. However, surgery may be necessary for some conditions that affect the colon.

Female reproductive organs

Pelvic pain in females often relates to the reproductive tract.

A possible cause of this pain is an ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when a fertilized egg attaches outside of the uterus. The pain this causes may be acute and sharp. Other symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy may include changes in bowel habits and vaginal bleeding. Medication or surgery may be necessary to treat this condition.

An ovarian cyst also can cause pelvic pain in females. The pain may come and go, be dull, and radiate to the back. Other symptoms of an ovarian cyst may include painful periods. Taking hormonal birth control pills can help control ovarian cysts. Sometimes, treatment requires surgery to remove a cyst.

Another source of pelvic pain in females is a pelvic infection, which may also cause fever and vaginal discharge or bleeding. Sexually transmitted infections, including gonorrhea and chlamydia, can cause pelvic pain. Without treatment, they can also lead to severe infection, infertility, and chronic pelvic pain. Antibiotics treat pelvic bacterial infections.

Heart

Heart conditions, such as heart attack or pericarditis (swelling around the heart), can cause pain on the upper left side.

Other symptoms may include acute, stabbing chest pain with difficulty breathing. You also may experience weakness, a cough, and sweating.

Seek immediate medical care for these symptoms.

Kidney

Kidney diseasekidney infection, and kidney stones can cause sharp and acute pain. The pain may radiate behind the ribs or down into the groin.

Other symptoms may include:

  • burning pain when passing urine
  • fever
  • blood in the urine
  • tenderness in the right flank

Some kidney conditions are serious and require hospital care.

Lung

Blood clots or infections in the left lung can cause pain on the left side, under the ribs. A blood clot that travels to your lung is a pulmonary embolism. It can cause sharp, severe, and acute pain.

Other symptoms of PE may include:

PE is a medical emergency. Immediate treatment with medications or a procedure is necessary.
In addition to pain, lung infections such as pneumonia may cause fever. Pneumonia may or may not require hospitalization.

Pancreas

Cancer or pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can cause pain in the left upper side. 

Pancreatic cancer causes pain that is dull and more gradual. Other symptoms include nausea, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and unintentional weight loss.

Pancreatitis causes severe and constant pain that may radiate to the back, sometimes with nausea, vomiting, and fever. 

Problems with the pancreas may require hospitalization.

Rib cage

The rib cage is a series of bones that support your spine and protect your internal chest organs. Sustaining an injury to the rib cage or experiencing inflammation of any part of the rib cage can cause pain.

Conditions related to rib cage pain include:

  • Costochondritis: This refers to inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to your breastbone. An injury or viral infection may cause it. Treatment depends on the underlying cause and the level of pain.
  • Pleurisy: This refers to inflammation of the lining between the lung and the rib cage. This may include a buildup of fluid. It can be difficult and painful to take a deep breath. Treatment options depend on the cause.
  • Sprains and strains of intercostal muscles: Injuring the muscles between the ribs can cause acute rib cage pain. Resting, applying ice packs, and taking over-the-counter pain relievers can help manage pain while the muscles recover.
  • Rib fracture: Trauma to the rib cage can cause pain when breathing or touching the area. Treatment may include taking medication to control pain, doing breathing exercises to maintain lung function, and undergoing physical therapy.

Small intestine

Cancer or inflammation of the small intestine can cause left sided abdominal pain. Pain may occur along with:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • loss of appetite
  • cramping
  • gas
  • bloating
  • blood or mucus in the stool

Treatment varies with the cause and may include taking medication or undergoing surgery.

Spleen

The spleen is located near the stomach in the upper left side of the abdomen. It is part of the lymphatic system.

Sustaining an injury or getting an infection can damage the spleen. Tenderness and pain behind the left ribs may indicate an enlarged spleen or a ruptured spleen. A ruptured spleen is a life threatening medical emergency.

Treatment varies based on the cause and may involve taking antibiotics for a bacterial infection, using medications to treat an underlying condition affecting the spleen, or undergoing surgery to remove part or all of the spleen.

Stomach

Stomach ulcers or gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) may cause acute or chronic pain in the left upper part of your abdomen.

Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting. Bleeding in the stomach may cause bloody vomiting or stool that is bloody, black, or tarry.

Treatment of stomach-related problems often involves taking medication.

When to seek care

Mild abdominal pain that goes away and does not come back may not need treatment. However, talk with your doctor about any abdominal pain that is severe or that keeps coming back. Severe or persistent abdominal pain is not normal. Be sure to tell your doctor about all symptoms you are experiencing.

Certain symptoms mean that you need to seek medical care. Watch for these more serious symptoms:

Summary

Pain in the left side of your abdomen usually comes from one of the organs, muscles, or bone structures in that part of your body. The type of pain you have can be a clue to what is causing it.

Pain on the left side of the abdomen may be mild or severe. Mild pain that resolves and does not return may not require treatment. 

Chronic pain on the left side may indicate an underlying condition. It is important to seek medical care for chronic or severe abdominal pain, especially when experiencing other serious symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 25
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