Abdominal pain is both an extremely common symptom and, from a medical perspective, an annoyingly unhelpful one. This is why doctors will divide your abdomen into quadrants in order to make things more specific.
If they know that your pain is from the upper left of the abdomen, they can get a better idea of what might be wrong.
The upper left abdominal quadrant contains a variety of useful and important organs. Your stomach, spleen, parts of the colon, the main body of the pancreas, one of the kidneys, and the left lobe of your liver are all contained within this region.
Note that although your heart and a lung are on the upper-left side of your body, they are not within the abdominal region. Upper left abdominal pain can potentially come from any of these organs and be due to a variety of different causes. A bit of familiarity with potential causes of upper left abdominal pain can be useful when trying to help your doctor narrow down the potential diagnoses.
Causes of Upper Left Abdominal Pain
Your spleen is tasked with helping to filter blood and holding extra reserves in store. It is also located in the perfect spot to get poked by a broken rib. As you might imagine, it is a bad idea to apply sharp objects to what is basically a fist-sized sac filled with blood at any given time. Even if the spleen doesn’t get stabbed directly, any strong blow (car crash, sporting accident) to the chest is capable of damaging the organ enough to cause a rupture.
How long this takes can vary and splenic ruptures have been known to happen weeks after the triggering trauma. In addition to upper left abdominal pain, the affected area will be tender to the touch and you may also experience confusion, lightheadedness, or dizziness. Depending on where the blood is pooling, you may also see bruising.
This is a type of peptic ulcer—a sort of open sore—that forms on the lining of the stomach. Gastric ulcers appear when the stomach acid eats away at the lining of the organ. This is usually provoked due to H. pylori infections but is also a potential side effect from the routine use of certain pain medications.
A gastric ulcer can cause a painful burning sensation in the stomach, bloating, heartburn, nausea (rarely vomiting, but possible), and an intolerance of fatty foods.
A kidney stone is a hardened mass, usually of calcium, that can form within the kidneys. Since kidney stones can range in size from a grain of sand to roughly the size of a golf ball, problems can arise if one ends up migrating into the urinary tract. The most infamous symptom of a kidney stone is a spectacular and sudden pain, usually in the flank and radiating down to the groin or thigh.
Other possible symptoms include blood in the urine, difficulty urinating, nausea, and vomiting. Due to the way the organ is arranged, the pain of a kidney stone will not necessarily appear in the upper left abdominal quadrant even if that is the stone’s origin.
Regardless of whether you are talking about A, B, or C, hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can be brought on by a viral infection. It’s possible to have hepatitis and not show any symptoms, but those that do will often experience upper left abdominal pain, fatigue, a mild fever, nausea and vomiting, and possible muscle or joint pains. In more severe cases, you may also develop sudden itchiness or the yellowing of your skin, or even the whites of the eyes (jaundice).
A diverticulum is a pouch that can form in the lining of the colon. This pouch can become infected and inflamed by bacteria, resulting in diverticulitis. The pain from diverticulitis will depend on which part of the colon is infected, so it may show up in the upper or lower left abdominal quadrants.
In addition to the expected nausea, vomiting, and fever from the infection, the affected part of the abdomen will be tender and sore to the touch. Constipation is a common symptom, but diarrhea is also possible as well—though it doesn’t show up as frequently.
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is a collection of various ailments that all result in chronic inflammation of various parts of the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis fall into this category. The exact cause of IBD isn’t known, but it does have some sort of genetic involvement since the condition can run in families.
The increase in inflammation will interfere with the normal movement of digestive contents and can cause upper left abdominal pain and cramping, depending on which parts of the tract are affected. Diarrhea is a recurrent problem for IBD sufferers, though constipation is also possible depending on how the body reacts to the inflammation.
The combination of inflammation, pain, and cramping can result in a loss of appetite, which in turn can result in unintended weight loss. Malnourishment is also a risk since IBD interferes with the absorption of food and associated nutrients.
Treatment for Upper Left Abdominal Pain
When looking for how to treat upper left abdominal pain, it’s important to first make sure you have the right diagnosis. The above-listed possibilities are far from an exhaustive list and every condition is treated differently. The potential treatments for abdominal pain can include:
Several causes of upper left abdominal pain can require surgery. A splenic rupture, for instance, is a medical emergency that requires surgical intervention to drain the blood and, if necessary, remove the organ entirely. If a kidney stone is large enough that it cannot be physically passed, surgical removal is often the only option.
In advanced cases of diverticulitis, the inflammation can be advanced enough that surgeons will need to remove the most diseased parts of the colon or surgery will be needed to address complications like an abscess or bowel obstruction. Similar surgery may be required in advanced cases of IBD as well.
Antibiotics are prescribed in cases of gastric ulcers and diverticulitis to treat the underlying infection. IBD patients who have a fever may also be placed on antibiotic medications. Antiviral drugs are used to treat hepatitis. Other possible drugs may be NSAID’s or steroids to control inflammation (steroids are more likely for IBD) or pain medication.
Stool softening or bulking agents may be used to help manage constipation or diarrhea symptoms. If the condition is creating a risk of malnutrition, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, then vitamin supplements may be warranted.
Various self-management steps can be used alongside medical treatment. For ulcers and IBD, eating lighter and more frequent meals can help minimize how much the respective condition is aggravated. Also advisable would be to avoid foods that are known provokers of these ailments, such as high-fat or spicy meals.
Kidney stones can be helped along their journey by making sure to keep up a proper water intake, since this helps flush the system and can speed up a stone’s natural removal. Appropriate rest can never hurt either.