A sharp, stabbing sensation under your left ribs that radiates to your upper back. A dull, constant ache in your abdomen that intensifies when you move or breathe deeply. An uncomfortable fullness and bloating in your upper stomach that causes general discomfort.
Do you have any of these troubling symptoms? According to the CDC's 2021 report, 39% of US adults experienced back pain in 2019, while 9.8% suffered from abdominal pain. While it may start sporadically, this type of localized discomfort can gradually worsen over time and begin severely impacting your daily activities.
So what may be causing this pain under your left rib cage and upper back? And when should you see a doctor? This comprehensive guide will walk you through the key things you need to know about evaluating and treating upper left abdomen and back pain.
Pain specifically located in your upper left abdomen under your ribs, which also spreads to your left shoulder, upper back, and left side of your spine, indicates potential issues involving a variety of internal organs and structures in that region.
Common culprits of upper left quadrant and back pain include:
The pancreas sits tucked behind the upper abdomen. Inflammation of this important digestive gland from gallstones, excessive alcohol use, or other causes can generate severe abdominal pain that radiates to the upper back. Repeated bouts of pancreatitis can damage the pancreas.
Spasms from kidney stones getting stuck in the left ureter or a kidney infection can both provoke pain under the left ribs that refers pain towards the left side of your upper back.
Digestive troubles like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stomach ulcers, chronic heartburn, acid reflux, or a hiatal hernia can also trigger upper abdominal and upper back pain on the left side.
Muscle strains and injuries affecting the muscles between the ribs or irritation and inflammation of spinal nerves emerging from the thoracic spine can result in upper left quadrant pain radiating into the upper back region.
Your spleen sits under your left rib cage, so enlargement of this organ from infections, liver disease, leukemia, and other medical issues can generate a dull, aching pain in that area that may affect your back.
Less common culprits for left upper quadrant and back pain include shingles, broken ribs, and abdominal tumors.
Keep in mind your doctor will need to perform the appropriate exams, lab tests, and imaging to accurately determine what’s causing your discomfort. But familiarizing yourself with the possible reasons behind the pain provides a helpful starting point for discussions with your physician.
Mild to moderate upper left abdominal and back discomfort that comes and goes may not require urgent care. However, certain red flag symptoms associated with the pain do warrant seeing a doctor promptly for evaluation.
Seek emergency medical attention for upper left quadrant and back pain if you experience:
These red flag symptoms indicate a serious medical problem requiring emergency care, like pancreatitis, kidney infection, ulcer perforation, or an abdominal aortic aneurysm at risk of rupturing.
Don’t try to tough it out if your symptoms are scaring you. Getting prompt medical treatment provides the greatest chance of preventing serious complications and long-term issues.
To correctly identify the underlying cause of upper left abdominal and back pain, your doctor will typically start with:
Expect questions about when the pain started, what makes it better or worse, if it’s constant or comes and goes, and whether it radiates anywhere. Information about your health conditions, family history, symptoms, diet, lifestyle habits, and recent travels or illnesses help pinpoint potential reasons for the pain.
Your doctor will palpate and listen to your abdomen looking for areas of tenderness, tension, pulsations, or abnormal masses. They’ll also check your back, chest, and rest of your body for problems. Let them know exactly where you feel the pain.
Bloodwork helps identify signs of inflammation, infection, pancreatitis, kidney problems, and other issues. A urinalysis can pick up blood, protein, bacteria, and other abnormalities potentially linking your pain to a kidney or urinary tract problem.
Abdominal ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRIs provide detailed views of your organs and structures to check for stones, cysts, tumors, fluid collections, and other problems causing your discomfort. Chest X-rays allow evaluation of your lungs, ribs, and upper spine.
If initial results are inconclusive, tests like a colonoscopy or endoscopy to examine your digestive tract, a HIDA scan to evaluate gallbladder function, or specialized kidney function tests may be warranted based on your symptoms.
Once your doctor identifies the issue provoking your upper left abdominal and back pain, they can outline the appropriate treatment options.
Prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs like:
It’s important to note that NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen should be used with caution, as they can cause stomach irritation.
Eating smaller, more frequent bland meals, limiting fatty foods, avoiding trigger foods, staying hydrated and controlling portion sizes can help minimize upper abdominal discomfort. Keeping a food journal helps identify problematic items.
Relaxation techniques, counseling, biofeedback, massage, and other stress management approaches reduce pain-inducing tension.
Low-impact activities like walking, swimming, yoga, and Pilates strengthen muscles and reduce spasms that can cause referred upper back pain. Stretches also help.
Removal of gallbladder, kidney stones, cysts/tumors, hemorrhoids, adhesions, or infected tissue may be required for certain underlying conditions.
Procedures like ERCP with gallstone removal, endoscopic stent placement, and ulcer repair can provide minimally invasive relief for some causes.
Numbing irritated nerves with targeted injections of steroids and anesthetics can temporarily alleviate upper back and abdominal pain.
Chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help some patients manage discomfort.
The right treatment depends on the cause of your pain. Getting a proper diagnosis lets you and your doctors create a tailored pain relief plan. Patience and consistency bring the best chance for resolving that debilitating upper left abdominal and back pain over the long term.
If you’ve had extensive testing but the exact cause of your upper left abdominal and back pain remains elusive, or if treatments so far provide only partial relief, getting a second opinion from pain specialists makes sense.
These physicians have advanced training in accurately diagnosing and effectively managing even highly complex, hard-to-treat pain. Treatments pain management specialists may provide include:
By taking a whole-person approach and individualizing treatment for each patient’s unique situation, these pain experts often succeed where others fail. Their goal is to maximize quality of life despite persistent pain.
1. Broad expertise in treating all pain types - Chronic pain specialists have experience diagnosing and managing every pain syndrome and problem area imaginable. They can handle even the most obscure and complex cases.
2. Access to advanced treatments - Pain centers offer the latest advanced interventional procedures, neuromodulation implants, medication protocols, injection techniques, and complementary therapies.
3. Multidisciplinary approach - Physicians, physical therapists, psychologists, nutritionists, and other professionals work together to address pain from every angle.
4. Patient-focused commitment - These practices understand the full life impacts of pain. Their top priority is dramatically improving patients' comfort, function, and quality of life.
5. Ongoing support - Even after identifying effective treatments, pain specialists continue partnering with you long-term to optimize results.
6. Hope - By unlocking new treatment options, pain experts provide renewed hope for overcoming pain's challenges no matter how desperate you feel. Setting realistic expectations is important, though.
To gain maximum benefit from your appointments, being proactive empowers you. Come prepared with questions like:
Don't hold back from expressing all your concerns and goals. The more your pain specialist understands the impacts of your upper left abdominal and back pain, the better they can craft an effective treatment plan.
Ongoing upper left quadrant and back pain leave you feeling drained, discouraged, and overwhelmed, but you deserve more than just scraping by day to day. Gaining back your vitality, engagement, and sense of purpose is always possible.
Dedicated pain management experts can be the key that finally unlocks lasting relief after months or years of fruitless efforts. With their help, you can reclaim the life you want. Don't lose hope - help awaits you.
To learn more about treatments that can free you from upper left abdominal and back pain, visit Gramercy Pain Center at https://www.gramercypaincenter.com/ today. Our empathic pain specialists will partner with you on your journey to feeling like yourself again.